So far, the Trump administration’s approach to poverty alleviation in the U.S. has looked pretty bleak. There’s the proposed 13 percent cut to the overall HUD budget, the proposed elimination of CDBGs (which has even some conservative mayors up in arms), the 900 families who recently had their housing vouchers taken back in Houston. But new HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s ongoing “national listening tour” has recently provided some subtler insight into what we can expect from the next four years. And while the federal approach may not turn out to be as slash-and-burn as it’s been presented, it will most likely adhere to conservative ideals about self-reliance, perhaps at the cost of programs that take a housing first approach.
According to the New York Times, Carson indicated in an interview this week that “some of President Trump’s tough-minded budget cuts might be more bluster than bottom lines. HUD programs targeted for elimination, including Community Development Block Grants, which help fund efforts like Meals on Wheels, may wind up with different names, but they will continue to function in some of the same ways.”
“I know [CDBGs] have been called out for elimination,” Carson said. “My impression is that what [Trump] is really saying is that there are problems with those programs … . And I think it may have been someone on his staff who kind of said, ‘Well, maybe we just need to get rid of the whole program.’ No, we don’t need to get rid of the whole program because there are some extremely good things there.”
Carson’s tour began in March, with stops at the housing complexes that HUD oversees in Miami, Jacksonville, Dallas and Detroit. As of May 3, he was in Ohio.
As Jen Kinney wrote for Next City when the tour began, the visits are a kind of litmus test to determine whether Carson would “listen to other perspectives or allow his own experience — or lack thereof — to shape his policies.”
“Carson’s view of public housing and federal anti-poverty initiatives in general has been deeply shaped by his own experience growing up poor,” she wrote. “His mother espoused a strong belief that people could lift themselves out of poverty through hard work and education. Carson took that path, and so remains confident that others can do the same.”
So far, Carson has shown some public support for projects that would supposedly be cut under Trump’s budget blueprint. In Jacksonville, Florida, he opined “on the virtues of housing vouchers,” Oscar Perry Abello wrote for Next City in April, adding that the Trump administration “has proposed cutting HUD’s Section 8 programs, including vouchers and project-based Section 8 buildings, by $600 million.”
But Carson’s personal views about poverty have also been on stark display. One of them: The poor shouldn’t be too comfortable.
The Times reports:
As he toured facilities for the poor in Ohio last week, Mr. Carson … joked that a relatively well-appointed apartment complex for veterans lacked “only pool tables.” He inquired at one stop whether animals were allowed. At yet another, he nodded, plainly happy, as officials explained how they had stacked dozens of bunk beds inside a homeless shelter and purposefully did not provide televisions.
Compassion, Mr. Carson explained in an interview, means not giving people “a comfortable setting that would make somebody want to say: ‘I’ll just stay here. They will take care of me.’”
Carson also asked a telling question while touring Franklin Station, a housing center for the chronically homeless, according to the paper: Did people have to be sober and drug free to get access to housing?
“The question is at the heart of a philosophy change in housing made some decades ago,” the Times reports, quoting Bela Koe-Krompecher, clinical director at the YMCA of Central Ohio, who did a walk-through of the facility with Carson. “The thinking was for years, you had to be clean and sober to get housing,” she told the paper. “And harm reduction philosophy says, ‘No, you don’t’ … ‘Housing first’ says, ‘We house them, we get them services.’”
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian