Op-ed: Rags to riches to ignorance

While President Trump’s cabinet nominees were the main story during the first few weeks of his presidency, their shortcomings and inexperience have flown under the radar during debates on healthcare and the budget. A lot has been made out of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s refusal to label Vladimir Putin a war criminal or Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ confusion about the debate surrounding standards and growth benchmarks. But Ben Carson’s confirmation as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was largely ignored by the media, diminished by the perception that HUD is a second-tier department with little authority.

In reality, HUD plays a crucial role in combating poverty and housing discrimination. HUD boasts a budget of $47 billion and employs over 8,000 workers. It operates the Section 8 housing program, which allows 7 million Americans every year to secure private and public homes. The department is tasked with upholding the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which calls on states, cities and municipalities to combat housing discrimination and segregation in their communities, “affirmatively furthering” fair housing. Now that he is confirmed as Secretary of HUD, Carson is positioned to cripple every one of these programs.

The majority of news surrounding Carson’s nomination and confirmation centered on his lack of experience. Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon, was initially President Trump’s pick to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, a more natural fit, but Carson declined the job. His qualifications to be Secretary of HUD are far murkier. Carson has no experience conducting housing or urban development policy. But during his confirmation hearing, Carson highlighted his childhood, in which his family lived in poverty in inner city Detroit. Carson never lived in public housing, though his family received food stamps, a program operated by the Department of Agriculture.

Far from demonstrating to him the importance of governmental assistance programs, Carson’s rise from poverty to wealth and stature has imbued him with a narrow, myopic notion that the only recipe for success is individual effort. His autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” (1990) included this lesson from his mother: “If you don’t succeed, you only have yourself to blame.” Carson championed this message during his 2016 presidential bid, arguing that welfare programs make the poor “dependent.” Conveniently forgetting the federal assistance he and his family received, Carson referred to poverty as “a choice more than anything else.” While Carson is entitled to draw his own conclusions from his experiences, his outlook on welfare programs could be incredibly detrimental to the work done by HUD.

The Section 8 housing voucher program helps about 5 million people pay for private housing. Another roughly 2 million people are in public housing. Despite the success of the Section 8 housing program, which has been demonstrated to reduce poverty, 75 percent of poor Americans who meet the qualifications for housing assistance don’t receive it. Will Carson fight to make sure that these Americans are provided a home when he believes that assistance will only create more poverty?

HUD also operates the Federal Housing Administration, a crucial sub-agency that grants more than $1 trillion in mortgages to low-income families every year. Without these loans, many Americans would be unable to afford private homeownership and the tax benefits that come with it.

Last summer, the Obama administration announced that HUD would begin withholding federal funding from communities that fail to uphold the Fair Housing Act. Under this law, the communities are tasked to use data on demographics, school and housing qualities and poverty – much of which is collected by HUD itself – to create a community where minority and low-income families aren’t denied access to good schools and homes. The Obama administration tasked a select number of communities to craft a plan to address their community disparities and present it to HUD.

In a Washington Times op-ed, Carson decried this policy as “failed socialism.” Carson demonstrates a genuine concern for poverty and housing discrimination and seems to recognize some of the sources of these inequalities. “To be fair,” he writes, “white flight was not exclusively the consequence of forced integration policies. Other private and public housing policies such as redlining, restrictive covenants, discriminatory steering by real estate agents and restricted access to private capital … exacerbated the suburban segregation in the 1970s and ‘80s.” Carson sees these discriminatory practices as “social-engineering schemes” and views the Obama administration’s attempts to right these wrongs as just another scheme.

Carson is now in a position of great power, one for which he is entirely unprepared and unfit. If unchecked, Carson has the power to assure that few poor, minority families ever reach his level of success, no matter how hard they try.


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