Ben Carson is Half Right

In these highly polarized times it is risky, among my many “progressive” friends, to credit the opposition with any positive contribution to the general welfare.  Yet even a broken clock is right twice a day, and Republicans sometimes, on a “gut” level, tap into something that actually makes sense to a majority of Americans.  So, at the risk of being dubbed a “traitor,” by my self righteous and highly intolerant liberal friends (such defects know no party bounds), I’d like to commend HUD Secretary Ben Carson for shining a light on some of the injustices of our low income housing policy.

Last week Carson, addressing the Senate, had the umbrage, which often accompanies those with little political experience, to suggest that public housing and Section 8 vouchers may actually be detrimental to the long term welfare of its beneficiaries.   That’s because rents are capped at 30% of the tenants legally reported income.  This gives the tenant every incentive to either not work, to preserve their benefit, or to work under the table, and such opportunities are ubiquitous in most cities.  Carson suggested that rent might gradually increase to 35% of total income which, by some alchemic math, could actually triple the monthly rent of the lowest earners, from $50 to $150 per month.  $50 per month – who gets away with that?!

Turns out only a select minority of Americans, who we might call the “privileged poor,” if such an appellation didn’t sound so profoundly ridiculous.   In his 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond points out that only one of six Americans eligible for housing assistance actually receives it.  The rest are left to try their luck on the private housing market, where they will pay 50-80% of their income in rent and perpetually be at risk of eviction.  Of one of his main characters he writes, “Arleen had given up hope for housing assistance long ago.  If she had a housing voucher it would mean the difference between stable poverty and grinding poverty, the difference between planting roots in a community and  being batted from one place to another.  It would mean she could give most of her check to her children instead of her landlord.” 

Should anyone’s life choices be between “stable poverty and grinding poverty?”  We should not incentivize people to stay in public housing for life, being ever grateful for their “stable poverty” v. total deprivation.  Other poor people need to occupy those units as a means to move “up and out” of their present circumstances.  Despite the rising threats of technological change and automation to the global workforce, there is only one legal way to escape poverty: work full time, year round, year after bloody year until you’ve saved enough for retirement.  Also, get and stay married.  Maintain good relations with a wide circle of family and friends, who can support you in times of trouble.  Join a church or community organization; get involved as an active citizen, rather than a self server & seeker.  Live like an immigrant (currently under attack but the wealth of our nation), even though your ancestors have been here for centuries.  It’s hard math, but it works.  I know, because I have violated many of these precepts and have paid dearly for it.

Once you have “worked hard and played by the rules,” as Bill Clinton used to say, the government’s role kicks in.  Any business who employs over 20 people should immediately begin to pay their workers $15 per hour minimum; smaller businesses should get a government wage subsidy to bring them to that.  The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which benefits the working poor, should be dramatically expanded, especially for single, childless workers who are currently screwed in the process.  Government can provide guaranteed jobs and training, at a sub minimum wage, for those excluded from the private labor market.  Housing subsidies should be expanded so no individual pays more than 50% of their income in rent, leaving them perpetually vulnerable to eviction and indigence.  If we truly cared about the common good, rather than our own petty individual advancement, we might actually lobby for and vote on such issues.

PS: When I started this blog a few months ago I invited about 40 friends, at least twice, to follow.  About 10 accepted the invitation.  I spend a lot of time and effort on these pieces and get precious little response.  Comments are few & sparse; “likes” virtually non existent.  If you’ve read this far, please make some response.  Be assured that if you spent several hours sending me your own original writing (rather than some pithy comment on Facebook) I would do the same.  I am getting very discouraged at the lack of response and am thinking of giving this up or seeking an alternate venue.  Jesus truly said, “A prophet is without honor in his hometown.”




8 thoughts on “Ben Carson is Half Right”

  1. Nick, you’ve been bamboozled by Ben Carson: he’s completely wrong, and your comment about “getting away” with paying $50 for rent reeks of middle-class ignorance and judgment. Some people are so poor that 30 percent of their income is only $50. Their cash assistance has run out and they can’t hold a job because they have a prison record or have substance abuse problems. This is the world of extreme poverty. Yes, they make some under the table. So what? If we lived under the humane provisions of European social democracy, our governments would take care everyone, regardless of race or level of education, provide for their needs, and nurse them to independence. Under those conditions, poverty largely disappears and therefore also the culture of semi-criminality that it breeds. Yes, I’m exaggerating. But in all social indicators, European continental societies measure far above our own.

    You seem to support Carson’s cut backs in housing assistance, but then demand a $15 minimum wage and a raft of similar benefits for the working poor. In what alternate universe do you live?

    Dan Jones


    1. Dan,

      Thanks for your comment. I knew my partial support of Carson would make some liberal friends mad, as I predicted in the first paragraph. Thanks for reading and reacting. You’re about the only person who ever comments on my posts, which is why I’m considering giving them up or finding a friendlier venue.

      My current income puts me in the lower middle class and I’ve been there much of my life. I’m hardly ignorant of the lives of the very poor, having managed three homeless shelters and spent three years on a welfare to work program in the past, in addition to visiting over 100 people on State Road. I know many people in this post “welfare reform” era have little/no cash – Gov. Corbett even cut off the meager $200/month General Assistance checks of the extremely poor while in office & Gov. Wolf hasn’t pushed to restore them. I read “$2 a Day” a couple of years ago, a book I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it.

      Given the above, and the fact we don’t live in a humane European social democracy (“what alternative universe are YOU living in?”) the only legal path out extreme poverty is to work, since the poor aren’t getting an inheritance. That’s why the government should guarantee work and training, at a living wage, for all able bodied people who seek it. Those who are completely and totally disabled should get a stipend, food stamps and health care (which should be universal anyway) sufficient to live in basic dignity and sufficiency. It’s my experience that most disabled people can do some work if “reasonable accommodations” are made – that was the point of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

      Carson, by the way, didn’t advocate cutting public housing; he threatened to resign if Congress implemented the draconian cuts in Trump’s first budget. He has talked about making the program a temporary benefit rather than a permanent entitlement. The problem with housing assistance is that only about 1/5 of eligible Americans receive it, so the other 80% are SOL & what happens to them? Read Matthew Desmond’s recent book “Evicted” to find out.

      Got to get back to work. Thanks for being my one loyal reader, so far as I know. Hope to see you soon.



      1. Dan,

        To answer your last question, the “alternative universe” I HOPE to inhabit is one where the poor work and are fairly compensated to do so – doesn’t sound so radical to me, though we’re a long way off.



    1. Not sure how to answer, beyond the blog and reply to your last comment. Please be more specific – include stats or anecdotes if you have them. Can’t knock myself out attempting to address overly broad & vague comments.


  2. Frank,

    Thanks for commenting. Not sure precisely what you’re asking since it’s so brief & broad, but if you mean why we still have working poor it’s because wages are too low and social protections too weak. That’s why I advocate a $15/hour minimum wage, universal health insurance, housing assistance for all who qualify & govt jobs for those who can’t find one in the private market. It’s an ambitious, perhaps utopian vision, but something to aspire to and work towards.

    Political scientist Lawrence Mead once found that less than 2% of people who worked full time, year round were officially poor. Add a spouse who works even part time and the number basically drops to zero, even in the shitty low wage job market we have. Add the benefits I advocate and we move toward a more just, humane society.



    1. Im responding to where you say “there’s only one legal way to escape poverty.” There are people who have done these things. I’m asking how do you explain people who have done things but haven’t escape poverty.


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