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Poverty? Oh, that’s just a ‘state of mind’ for the Trump administration

Ben Carson’s comments on poverty make sense in the context of Trump’s cruel joke of a budget which punishes low-income people

By Jamie Peck | The Guardian | May 26, 2017


There has not been a lot of good news for the American poor lately. The post-recession “recovery” has left them behind, the wealth gap is widening and President Trump wants to cut billions of dollars from the social safety net so he can give tax cuts to rich people and build a wall on the Mexican border. Fortunately, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson has just shared the secret to getting yourself out of poverty: magical thinking.

In an interview with SiriusXM Radio, the retired neurosurgeon and armchair Egyptologist elaborated on his major key to success. “I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind,” he mused.

He went on to say: “You take somebody that has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street, and I guarantee in a little while they’ll be right back up there. And you take somebody with the wrong mindset, you could give them everything in the world, they’ll work their way right back down to the bottom.”

In language echoing President Trump’s worldview, he elaborated that the onus for teaching children to be “winners” falls on parents:

“A lot of it has to do with what we teach children. Parenting is a very difficult job. You have to instill into that child the mindset of a winner, if they’re likely to become a winner.”

He did not acknowledge that the existence of “winners” by definition requires there to be losers, or what people are supposed to do whose circumstances did not instill in them a positive outlook.

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While lesser political minds might think programs like food and housing assistance, universal healthcare, and tuition-free college are the key to freeing low-income people from the day-to-day cycle of survival so they can plan for the future, Carson knows it’s simply a matter of perspective. Still in poverty? It’s your own fault for not trying hard enough to get out of it.

Carson’s view happens to dovetail nicely with his boss’s cruel joke of a budget, which takes billions of dollars from food stamps, Medicaid, and other already-meager services that help the underprivileged stay alive and redistributes them upward.

Carson’s department alone will see a $6bn, or 13.2%, decrease in funding, which he presumably welcomes. As he has said many times in the past, allowing the poor too much dignity breeds laziness and dependency. Want children to start thinking like winners? Make them sleep on the floor in burlap sacks in crumbling, stigmatized buildings!

Want children to start thinking like winners? Make them sleep on the floor in burlap sacks in crumbling, stigmatized buildings!

Carson’s remarks echo a long conservative tradition of shifting the onus for alleviating poverty off the business-owning and wealth-inheriting classes (who, it bears mentioning, profit off an abundance of cheap and desperate labor) and their friends in government, and onto the afflicted individuals themselves.

From the Horatio Alger stories of the Gilded Age to modern self-help movements like “The Secret,” these myths naturalize and justify human-created inequality by pretending that anyone who deserves to succeed, will succeed, and anyone who doesn’t, deserves to suffer and die … preferably before they pass along their loser genes.

It’s the same line of thinking that led to thousands of involuntary sterilizations of immigrants, the poor, and other “undesirables” right here in the USbefore Hitler gave eugenics a bad name, and now justifies a healthcare policy that will kill millions (in addition to the millions already killed by past healthcare policies, that is). It’s also what lets a dim-witted rich kid like Donald Trump believe he deserves not only an offensively opulent lifestyle, but the power to rule over the rest of us, enshrining class hierarchy for future generations.

Of course, Carson and the Republican party are wrong. That social mobility is depressingly low and only getting lower is not the result of an increasingly depraved populace, but systemic racism, worker exploitation, dynastic inheritance and decades of neoliberal policy.

The single biggest determining factor of financial success is not attitude, but pure, dumb luck; according to a report from the Pew research center, children born to 90th percentile earners are on track to make three times as much as those born to 10th percentile paupers.

But even if the economically unlucky — a group that includes a disproportionate number of minorities — were inherently lazy and getting lazier, would that be a good enough reason for the richest country in the world to deny them basic levels of food and shelter? Carson’s insane branch of Christianity aside, there are few religious or moral philosophers out there who would not characterize that position as unnecessarily cruel.

Even if you don’t have an ounce of empathy for those less fortunate, it costs less in the long run to help the poor than not to. Decades of data from the US and Europe show that broad-based social welfare programs are the best way to alleviate poverty and the multitude of social ills it brings, from drug addiction to economic stagnation. Is punishing low-income people for their alleged iniquity really worth dragging all of society down?

Carson believes it is. In a statement meant to defend him, his SiriusXM interviewer and longtime friend Armstrong Williams noted, “he’s a man of faith, not a man of politics. Dr Carson believes in what is righteous, what is good, what is fair and what is just.” As with Trump, the Republican party and many elected Democrats, Carson’s austere, social Darwinist ideology trumps pragmatism every time.


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