People working to end poverty and increase affordable housing in the United States were further dismayed last week by Ben Carson, the inexperienced new U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), when he expressed his belief that poverty is simply a state of mind in an interview released by Sirius XM radio on Wednesday (May 24):
You take somebody who has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street, and I guarantee in a little while they’ll be right back up there.
Dr. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and failed candidate to be the 2016 Republican presidential nominee, who also believes that the Great Pyramid was the ancient Egyptian equivalent of a Prairie grain elevator, did not elaborate where “up there” was—whether it was “up the creek”, or “up to no good” but he did go on to add:
And you take somebody with the wrong mindset, you can give them everything in the world, they’ll work their way back down to the bottom.
Like any good fallacy, there is a grain of truth in what the new federal point man in charge of combatting poverty, homelessness and lack of affordable housing in the U.S. says. People do need to try hard on their own behalf—to overcome circumstances and to at least meet opportunity half way, as it were.
Thinking that the world owes you a living doesn’t make it so.
However, an individual’s mindset only goes so far.
Mindset does not, by itself, create equality of opportunity for all; it will not put food in a homeless child’s belly or clothes on their back; it will not overcome all physical obstacles to advancement. And certainly the mindset of a renter or a job hunter is not enough to make a bigoted landlord or employer blind to a person’s skin colour.
A mindset could be compared to a skill-set, which needs the proper environment and tools to be effectively and successfully exercised. And in the absence of any sustained awareness on the part of the private sector as to the importance of social equality, it has largely fallen to governments to try and legislate the social environment wherein the largest number of citizens have, from the youngest age, an equal opportunity to the tools of success, including education, nutrition, employment, and housing.
However, when Carson uses the phrase “right mindset”, I do not think that he just means a willingness to work hard or a generally positive and proactive attitude, I’m certain that he means a belief in the Christian God.
The mindset of Ben Carson
Carson is an evangelical Christian of the Seventh-day Adventist variety and in his writings and his speeches he credits finding God as being the pivotal even that made it possible for him—an African-American who grew up in poverty in the inner city of Detroit—to go on to graduate from Yale and the University of Michigan Medical School and then carve out a successful career in medicine as a neurosurgeon.
Certainly Carson gives credit to his mother, whom he says struggled to stay off welfare and worked three jobs to support her family but in his 1996 autobiography Gifted Hands he recounts at least three instances where he says that God intervened directly in his life to his lasting benefit, with the third time being the absolute charm.
Carson writes of his uncontrollable anger as a young man; how, after stabbing a friend in an argument over music (and miraculously turning the blade harmlessly on the boy’s belt buckle) he ended up praying to God and—randomly opening a Bible in the bathroom of his family’s tiny home in Detroit—found a passage in Proverbs that spoke (miraculously) to the need to control his anger.
Carson quotes himself as then telling God: “Lord, despite what all the experts tell me, You can change me. You can free me forever from this destructive personality trait.”
The quote must fly like an arrow straight to the heart of Carson’s evangelical conservative audience, which believes (by definition) that all success begins with a belief in God and which would read “experts” as referring to the entire hated secular liberal social safety net which replaced conservative faith-based charities.
Carson purposely minimizes the government assistance that he and his family received. We know, at least, that food stamps helped feed the family and Carson, in his autobiography, acknowledges that the free eyeglasses provided by his public school made a big difference in his ability to get an education. However, contrary to some reports, there is no evidence that the Carson family ever lived in social housing.
Government assistance aside, Carson seems to have so magnified other aspects of his journey out of poverty that some of his childhood acquaintances say that the angry and violent portrayal in his autobiography hardly resembles the quiet, nerdy young Ben Carson that they knew.
Certainly playing up the violent streak in his youth makes for a better narrative; not only allowing for a dramatic moment of epiphany but also giving drama and a special redemptive quality to Carson’s otherwise everyday determination to succeed.
I’m not surprised by Carson’s tendency to underplay the role that government social programs played his success. It’s part of his strong appeal to social conservatives that he constantly equates government social programs to dependency, as he declared (to raucous applause) before a strongly Tea Party conservative crowd in 2015:
We need to understand what true compassion is to reach out to individuals who think that being dependent is reasonable as long as they feel safe. It’s not compassion to pat them on the head and say, ‘There, there, I’m going to take care of all your needs, your health care, your food.’ That’s the opposite of compassion.
I’m not interested in getting rid of a safety net, I’m interested in getting rid of dependency.
Never mind that he too was once somewhat “dependent” on government programs. Few things get in the way of a good rags-to-riches “pulled yourself up by the bootstraps” story quite like the admission that you could not have done it alone—no matter how positively Godly your mindset—without some timely and sustained outside assistance.
In this stubborn need to cast his success as 100 percent self-made, in spite of the facts, Ben Carson strongly resembles the man who beat him to the Republican presidential nomination, won the U.S. presidentiall election of 2016 and named Carson to be the 17th Secretary of HUD.
The self-made mindset of Donald Trump
It’s a well-known fact that Donald Trump started developing Manhattan real estate using family contacts and a multimillion dollar loan from his father, Fred Trump, a multimillionaire developer of properties in New York’s four outer boroughs. The father built his wealth on creating solid, affordable housing, with help from the generous subsidies of post-Second World War federal housing programs. And ultimately the son, Donald, inherited the lion’s share of his father’s development business.
Fortune magazine has suggested that Donald Trump would be richer today by some $300 million had he just invested his inherited wealth but others disagree. What is beyond dispute is that he has had to declare bankruptcy no less than six times and, as of May 2016, his businesses were more than $700 million in debt. Beyond that, people can only speculate.
Donald Trump was the first U.S. presidential candidate in four decades to refuse to make his tax returns public and this fact has stood in the way of showing how rich he is or isn’t, or of proving or disproving the oft-repeated suspicions that he may have received significant additional financing from Russian sources.
As U.S. president, Trump plans to bring down a balanced federal budget which increases spending on defence, infrastructure and a border wall with Mexico, while significantly cutting taxes. He can only bring this about with massive cuts to the social programs that help low-income families and the poorest of Americans, the homeless.
One such at-risk program is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s 52-year-old Head Start program, which, as Wikipedia describes it, provides comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent-involvement services to low-income children and their families.
Many conservatives believe that federal education programs, like Head Start, should be abolished and that all authority for education should be allowed to devolve back to the state level, or simply revert to parents.
Trump seems to favour this idea and frankly, the absence of federal educational and nutritional programs would have been no skin off of his young nose: he grew up in wealth, which is the best head start that the United States can offer. And the money and connections he inherited weighed heavily against his ever being able to a fail in business.
It’s harder to justify Ben Carson’s antipathy to the same kind of government programs; after all, these materially helped him—at least in childhood—to eat better and succeed at school.
But apparently that was then and this is now.
Now, apparently, a significant portion of the United States longs for the myth of the masterful self-made man—the nonpolitical natural leader—what people used to call the Man on Horseback, who can outdo all if the pointy-headed “experts” with his practical experience.
And both Donald Trump and Ben Carson have shown the right mindset to be that man.
Yes Trump inherited great wealth and was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth but his mindset has allowed him to edit his life so as to say that he was a self-made success—that there was “no spoon” (as Spoon Boy told Neo in The Matrix).
Likewise Ben Carson has displayed a positive mindset for embellishing his personal story.
Ben Carson accentuates the positive
Then on October 8, 2015, he recounted in an interview on Sirius XM how, some 30 years earlier, he had been held-up at gunpoint in a Popeye’s restaurant in Baltimore and coolly redirected the would-be robber to the cashier.
Carson had never mentioned the incident before and more than one media outlet (knowing Carson’s penchant for exaggeration) frankly doubted that it had ever happened.
And in his first speech as the newly confirmed HUD secretary on March 6, Carson tried to put the best face on slavery when he wrongly described the millions of African slaves who were forcibly brought to the U.S. during the Middle Passage as “immigrants”:
That’s what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.
Ben Carson—a HUD secretary designed to fail?
There is no doubt in my mind that Carson is a very poor choice to head HUD. The huge federal agency, responsible for implementing national strategies against poverty, homelessness, and the lack of affordable housing in the United States, requires at least a leader with strong administrative skills, not to mention relevant experience—none of which Carson has displayed.
Anyway, he would be a poor choice if HUD was supposed to succeed. However, I expect that both Trump the antiestablishment populist and Trump the private sector developer wants HUD out of the way.
It’s a long list of federal agencies and programs that Trump want to explicitly eliminate but he can also shut up agencies he doesn’t like without actually shutting them down. He can leave them leaderless, for example.
As of April 20, according to CNBC, the Trump White House had yet to put forward the names of candidates for 475 of the 554 key federal positions that require Senate confirmation.
Or, it seems to me, he can give agencies potentially ineffectual leaders like Carson who, belying the notion that brain surgeons are especially intelligent, has come across as a bit of bumbler away from the operating theatre (where I assume he was very good), and who has shown a distinct tendency to pander to whatever he thinks his audience wants.
Well now Carson’s audience consists first-and-foremost of Trump, who probably won’t be the least bit disappointed to see a mouthy, ineffective performance from his HUD Secretary.
By the way, Carson is the only African-American in Trump’s 24-member cabinet, which consists of 18 white men and only three nonwhites (including Carson and Alexander Acosta) and four women (Betsy DeVos, Nikki Haley, Linda McMahon and Asian-American Elaine Chao, who earlier served in the cabinet of George W. Bush).