WASHINGTON ― President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for housing secretary suggested during his confirmation hearing on Thursday that the government does too much for the poor.
Retired brain surgeon Ben Carson pointed to his own life story as evidence that personal grit can help any American succeed despite difficult circumstances.
“All too often, people who seemingly mean well have promoted things that do not encourage the development of innate talent in people,” Carson said, referring to government assistance.
“I see each individual as human capital that can be developed to become part of the engine that drives our nation ― or, if not developed, becomes part of the load,” Carson said.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) asked Carson what’s the best thing government could do for someone receiving government assistance.
“Get them off of it,” Carson said.
Tillis then asked if the government has “gone from providing housing to providing warehousing for an unacceptable number of people who are supported to the federal government.”
“The key to your question was the word ‘unacceptable,’ and yes, absolutely,” Carson said.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s rental assistance programs, which benefit nearly 5 million American households, are relatively stingy compared to the amount of need that exists. Unlike programs such as food stamps, simply being poor enough to qualify for rental assistance doesn’t guarantee it, and roughly 14 million eligible households get no help. Meanwhile, 11 million renters spend over half their income on rent.
After Carson said it’s “unacceptable” how burdensome housing expenses are for some families, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) asked whether he supports raising the minimum wage. Carson’s answer suggested that he doesn’t, though it wasn’t completely clear.
“I support creating an environment that encourages entrepreneurial risk-taking and capital investment, which are the engines that drove America from ‘no place’ to ‘pinnacle of the world’ in record time,” he said.
Brown asked if Carson’s answer meant he doesn’t support the minimum wage.
“It means exactly that my philosophy is that we can increase people’s minimum wages by increasing opportunities for them and creating environments for those opportunities to exist, rather than artificially trying to change it,” Carson replied.
Carson, who sought the Republican nomination for president last year and was formerly the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, has no government background and no experience running a bureaucracy.
His remarks about people being part of society’s “engine” or part of its “load” recalled the “makers and takers” rhetoric once used by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Before he forswore that kind of talk in 2014, Ryan used to worry that “the safety net” had become “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”
Carson said he wanted to go on a “listening tour” to hear from people who receive federal housing benefits ― something Ryan did in 2013 and 2014. Ryan ultimately channeled the publicity from that tour into promoting budget blueprints that would put a cap on safety net spending and give more power to local and state authorities, another idea Carson seemed to like.
“We have people sitting around a desk in Washington, D.C., deciding how things should be done,” Carson said.
Brown pressed Carson about previous comments he had made about the Fair Housing Act, a piece of civil rights legislation that HUD is partially responsible for enforcing. Brown noted Carson had previously described it as a “failed socialist experiment.” Carson said he was merely “opposed to central dictation of peoples’ lives,” and that he wanted more local control over antipoverty programs.
Brown also pointed out that it’s not common for extremely poor people to become doctors.
“One study of medical students showed that less than 5.5 percent came from households with incomes under roughly $20,000,” Brown said.