Trump Picks Ben Carson, Skeptic of Anti-Poverty Programs, for HUD Secretary

NEW ANALYSIS: The president-elect selected another outsider to stem the growth of bureaucracy and waste.

HUD Secretary-elect Ben Carson and President-elect Donald Trump
HUD Secretary-elect Ben Carson and President-elect Donald Trump (photo: @RealBenCarson Twitter)

WASHINGTON — “Success is determined not by whether or not you face obstacles, but by your reaction to them,” noted Ben Carson, the first neurosurgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins, in his 1990 best-seller, Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story.

“And if you look at these obstacles as a containing fence, they become your excuse for failure. If you look at them as a hurdle, each one strengthens you for the next.” 

Now, in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Carson, 65, as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — a post that would place him at the helm of a sprawling federal agency with a $50-billion budget and 8,000 employees — he may get a fresh chance to test his theory of success.

A retired African-American neurosurgeon and author who ran in the Republican presidential primary, Carson has no significant management experience. But his rise from an inner-city neighborhood to the top echelons of medicine, combined with his skeptical view of federal anti-poverty programs, are clearly a big draw for Trump.

“Ben Carson has a brilliant mind and is passionate about strengthening communities and families within those communities,” Trump stated Dec. 5, marking Carson’s nomination as HUD secretary. “We have talked at length about my urban-renewal agenda and our message of economic revival, very much including our inner cities.”

“Ben shares my optimism about the future of our country and is part of ensuring that this is a presidency representing all Americans,” said Trump.

Though housing activists quickly expressed alarm about Carson’s inexperience and likely efforts to roll back President Barack Obama’s new housing regulations, Carson must await his confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

“I feel that I can make a significant contribution, particularly by strengthening communities that are most in need,” said Carson in a Dec. 5 statement following the announcement of his nomination. “We have much work to do in enhancing every aspect of our nation and ensuring that our nation’s housing needs are met.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development manages the Section 8 housing voucher program, which helps cities to house the poor and benefits an estimated 5 million families. The agency also monitors potential violations to the Fair Housing Act, which bars discrimination by landlords and sellers.

Further, HUD oversees the Federal Housing Administration, which helps would-be homeowners obtain loans, and channels federal dollars through the Community Development Block Grant program, which helps cities rebuild neighborhoods damaged by natural disasters.


Dependency Concerns

Carson has not provided specifics on his proposed plans for HUD. But his previous remarks and published commentary suggest changes will be afoot in the federal agency.

From his years at Johns Hopkins Hospital, near Baltimore’s struggling inner-city neighborhoods, he has witnessed the personal and structural problems that impede upward mobility, including the unintended consequences of government programs that can foster a culture of dependency.

“It really is not compassionate to pat people on the head and say, ‘There, there, you poor little thing. I’m going to take care of all your needs, your health care, your food and your housing. Don’t you worry about anything,’” said Carson in a 2015 address before the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“While it is too soon to tell what his specific views are and what his approach might be, past statements by Dr. Carson suggest that he is skeptical of the federal government’s involvement in the low-income housing market,” Angela Rachidi, a research fellow in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Register. “He may choose to get government out of the business of subsidizing construction of low-income units and move it more in the direction of vouchers, so that families can choose their own housing with some assistance from the government.”

“But, based on past statements about poverty programs in general, he also seems interested in ensuring that any government assistance for housing comes with work requirements,” said Rachidi.

Some changes sought by Carson will require action from Congress, but he will have the power to rescind a number of regulations introduced by the Obama administration.


Fair Housing Rule

Housing advocates concerned about systemic racial discrimination have already expressed fears that Carson will roll back Obama’s “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” rule, which mandates the collection of data on the racial makeup of city neighborhoods and then requires the creation of low-income housing in more affluent communities that have an unacceptably low percentage of black residents.

In a 2015 column in The Washington Times, Carson attacked the administration’s “tortured reading” of the Fair Housing Act that would mandate the aggressive promotion of fair housing practices, “even in the absence of explicit discrimination.”

“It is true that the Fair Housing Act and other laws have greatly reduced explicit discrimination in housing, but significant disparities in housing availability and quality persist,” Carson acknowledged. “In practice, the rule would fundamentally change the nature of some communities from primarily single-family to largely apartment-based areas by encouraging municipalities to strike down housing ordinances that have no overtly (or even intended) discriminatory purpose.”

As with other “mandated social-engineering schemes,” Carson suggested, this new rule will spark unintended consequences.

For example, while Mayor Bill DeBlasio of New York recently announced a plan to build almost 80,000 new affordable housing units in the city’s minority neighborhoods, Carson predicted that the new rules “could conceivably prevent their construction because of the ‘disparate impact’ doing so might have on minority access to affordable housing in non-minority areas of the city.”

That assessment has been challenged by housing advocates like Monika Gerhart, a spokeswoman for the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, in a statement reacting to Carson’s nomination.

The aggressive implementation of fair housing rules is especially critical in cities like New Orleans, said Gerhart, in order to “intentionally undo long-standing patterns of residential segregation.”


Catholic Charities’ Perspective

The U.S. bishops also have a stake in HUD’s future direction, as many Catholic Charities affiliates depend on federal subsidies to house low-income and homeless families.

Nella Goncalves, the director of housing support services for Catholic Charities San Francisco, where rents are among the highest in the nation and the spread of homeless encampments has prompted belated action from the city, already faces an uphill battle to secure housing for clients.

Catholic Charities San Francisco supervises 100 units of housing for the homeless, providing shelter for more than 500 people. Still, more than 200 families are on its waiting list.

“HUD pays 70% of the rent, to maintain the building,” said Goncalves, while an array of support services for those dealing with substance abuse, mental-health problems and other issues, are covered by the city and county.

Goncalves did not discuss Carson’s nomination, but federal dollars for homeless families are already in short supply, and she fears that cuts to vital programs are ahead.

Still, Goncalves sees the need for changes that would give case workers more flexibility to use federal funds where they are most needed in the continuum of care for struggling families. And while the “fair housing” regulation is not a primary concern, she sees the importance of moving families to “decent neighborhoods,” with stronger schools and a chance for the families she helps to start fresh.

On Capitol Hill, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Charities USA have consistently lobbied for a range of federal housing programs.

“In 2014, Catholic Charities agencies provided housing services to over 500,000 people, including permanent housing for over 33,000 and emergency shelter to over 10,000 people every night,” noted Archbishop Wenski of Miami and Sister Donna Markham, president of Catholic Charities USA, in a letter to Congress sent earlier this year, as new spending bills were debated.

“Despite these efforts, over 70 Catholic Charities agencies across the country continue to have waiting lists for housing. Indeed, according to HUD, only 25% of households that qualify for housing assistance actually receive it.”


Housing and Human Dignity

While Church leaders push for more federal spending on housing, it is not yet clear how Carson, if confirmed, will respond to their pleas and whether he may take a very different view of programs passionately defended by the U.S. bishops.

“At the most general level, the Church’s position here has simply been to stress that the dignity of the human person entails a right to shelter, and Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World) 26, is the most authoritative statement on this matter,” noted Bradley Lewis, an expert on political thought at The Catholic University of America.

“Meeting this need is crucial to a decent society,” Lewis emphasized, but he also noted that the bishops’ position on federal housing policy is still grounded in a document produced by the bishops’ conference in 1975, “The Right to a Decent Home.”

“In the mid-70s, the biggest problems were related to inflation and soaring interest rates. The problems of the 1970s are not the problems of today,” he said.

“The main thing here is that the most general moral guidelines and aspirations that the Church has proposed need to be effected by good policies, and determining what those are is a technical matter for experts.”

Carson, a pro-life Seventh-Day Adventist who often references his religious beliefs, will likely give considerable weight to the concerns of Catholic agencies, as he takes stock of the legacy he has inherited.

But Carson clearly does not view every established program as sacred. And he is openly impatient with the bureaucratic red tape that has restricted the freedom of poor people and agencies to adopt a path that could lead to better outcomes.

Truth be told, a reduction in HUD regulations will likely be welcome by an array of advocates.

“Groups representing the government’s more than 3,000 local public-housing authorities said Carson’s expected push for a weaker government hand in housing could also bring some relief — from regulations they say are too time-consuming and expensive to carry out,” noted The Washington Post in its coverage of Carson’s nomination.

But Carson may not be content with reducing onerous rules and could look for other ways to curb government overreach and even reinvent some housing programs.


Influenced by Reagan

Carson credits his political views to a change of heart that dates back to the Reagan administration, when he began to rethink his affiliation with the Democratic Party and its approach to poverty issues.

“During Reagan’s first term, I had just begun my neurosurgery residency at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore,” he noted in a column for National Review.

“I had exposure to many patients with unfulfilled lives because they were becoming dependent on government programs, and it struck me as the wrong way to go,” he wrote. “I listened to President Reagan’s speeches, and he did not seem evil and racist, as portrayed by the Democrats. In fact, I viewed him as a decent, trustworthy man who was a true leader. “

Almost three decades later, Carson’s doubts about the efficacy of the war on poverty have only hardened. Yet, while critics often frame his skeptical view of such programs as an ideological or partisan position, Carson’s own remarks suggest there is something more at stake.

His passionate critique of policies that foster dependence reflects a refusal to be content with the provision of basic services to the poor. Instead, he wants something more for inner-city residents who face the same hurdles he dealt with as the child of a poor, striving single mother.

He wants people who have had the same childhood experience to truly flourish, and that passion helps explain why Carson adopts such striking language to describe the tangle of regulations that can suppress individual initiative.

“This is what you see in communist countries,” he said during a June 2015 radio interview, “where they have so many regulations encircling every aspect of your life that if you don’t agree with them, all they have to do is pull the noose.”

In his own life, Carson avoided that trap. The question is whether, as secretary of HUD, he can succeed in helping others do the same. 


Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.