Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson has a great life story. He grew up in a poor family headed by a single mother and became a famed brain surgeon.
While Carson has no background in either housing or in running a large bureaucracy, he certainly does know a thing or two about poverty. And the 4.7 million people living in public or subsidized housing are very poor.
So despite Carson’s lack of formal qualifications for his job, having grown up surrounded by other poor families in the decaying industrial city of Detroit, he can not just empathize with the poor, but may also have some ideas to help raise them out of poverty.
Unlike many other economic conservatives, Carson does not blame the poor for being poor. It’s not that they’re lazy or lack ambition. Indeed, what better refutation of that theory than Dr. Carson himself, who defied all odds to raise himself by his own bootstraps.
So if the poor are not to blame for their own poverty, then who is? The federal government! Well intentioned public housing and housing subsidy programs ended up robbing the poor of the incentive to help themselves.
The poor need to be “incentivized” to work harder to rise out of poverty. They need to be weaned from their dependency on the public dole.
Dr. Carson has announced the first step in that process. He proposes to raise the rents in public housing from 30 percent of a family’s income to 35 percent. If their adults are already working, they’re going to need to work longer hours.
As a minimum, all adults living in public housing or receiving housing subsidies will be required to work at least 15 hours a week at or above the federal minimum wage level. Of course, the disabled and elderly will be exempt from this requirement.
This tough love is for their own good. Lulled into laziness by the paternalistic government programs, the poor need to follow the path he is creating for them – if not his personal example. They need to break free of the system that perpetuates their dependency and traps them in poverty.
There is certain a logic to Dr. Carson’s proposal. The poor live in subsidized housing because they don’t earn enough money to afford to pay market level rent. They can’t afford it because they don’t earn enough.
So let’s raise their rent so they will be forced to work more. And when they work more, their earnings will raise them above the poverty level and they will no longer be dependent on the government dole.
Dr. Carson’s plan might work for those whose children somehow manage to secure decent educations and go on to become brain surgeons or enter other well-paying fields. But the rest of them may just have to skip a few more meals.
Indeed, a few Republican controlled states are beginning to impose work requirements on food stamp and Medicaid recipients. Other states may follow. And if Republicans manage to retain control of Congress in the fall elections, they will likely try to impose work requirements for Medicaid and food stamps on the national level as well.
Were they to succeed, they would expect the poor to finally be delivered from the trap of dependency. Then, perhaps Ben Carson could run for president, promising a brand new thirty-thousand-dollar dining room set in every home.
About the Author
Steve Slavin has a PhD in economics from NYU, and taught for over thirty years at Brooklyn College, New York Institute of Technology, and New Jersey’s Union County College. He has written sixteen math and economics books including a widely used introductory economics textbook now in its eleventh edition (McGraw-Hill) and The Great American Economy (Prometheus Books) which was published in August.