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Earlier this month, a scandal broke out over pricey furniture at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon and presidential candidate, leads the government agency.
The question: How did a dining room set worth $31,000 end up in Carson’s office? It sounded like another government boondoggle, but Carson said he didn’t know about the expensive purchase and would seek to return it. Emails show he and his wife were involved in selecting furniture on some level. Congressional inquiries are underway, and the White House is looking into it.
It’s caused a stir, and money shouldn’t be mismanaged, but I think there’s a much more interesting question at the housing agency than who bought fancy chairs: In trying to run HUD, is Carson a house divided against himself?
When I started following Carson on the campaign trail in 2015, I grew accustomed to hearing familiar stories at campaign stops. The stories usually included his hard-working single mother who insisted Carson work hard too, despite the family facing the challenges of poverty. He talked about personal industry and the power of mentorship.
Carson was running for the highest office in the land, and he was offering policy proposals, but he always seemed keenly interested in talking about private solutions to public problems.
His privately run nonprofit, the Carson Scholars Fund, establishes reading rooms in elementary schools, and gives modest scholarships to hardworking students. The group takes in about $7 million a year. HUD, though, is tasked with solving poverty-related problems on a national scale, and has an annual budget of $36 billion.
It’s a big jump.
Some have wondered if Carson has the skills to run the agency, or whether his professional talents might have meshed better in areas related to healthcare. They also note that Carson has said running HUD involves addressing problems more complex than brain surgery.
But I don’t think Carson made that comparison because he’s not smart enough for HUD. I think he realizes brain surgery involves exact science, and poverty doesn’t. Yes, certain principles are often in play when it comes to poverty, but so are countless scenarios that don’t always produce the same results.
It’s perplexing and difficult to address on a grand scale.
Even now, Carson’s attention often turns back to micro solutions: In an address to the Manhattan Institute in December, the secretary floated the idea of escrow accounts for public housing residents who undertake their own repairs. If a resident fixes a toilet himself, instead of calling a landlord, the escrow account would grow. In a few years, he could use the money for a down payment on a home.
A Manhattan Institute housing expert later said the idea could work on a smaller scale, but it wouldn’t address some of the major problems in public housing units in New York (like crumbling façades, leaking roofs, and mold).
It’s unlikely Carson doesn’t care about dangerous mold, but it seems his thoughts run to this: How can we move residents toward self-sufficiency? How can we move them past HUD?
How can we move residents toward self-sufficiency? How can we move them past HUD?
When it comes to bigger initiatives, so far Carson’s biggest push has been to call for “EnVision Centers”—community centers that are located in areas with public housing and would offer job training and other services. It could be a good idea, especially since it’s an effort groups all over the country have been doing for years—often without federal funds.
Carson sees the centers as an opportunity for private-public partnerships, and that may be a worthy goal for the agency, though faith-based groups might resist if taking federal funds would restrict their ability to teach the gospel.
National Review (which gave Carson a lackluster grade on his first year at the agency) suggested the secretary could push for efforts to ease restrictive zoning laws that drive up housing prices in already unaffordable areas. That could help not just the poorest citizens, but middle-class families squeezed out of decent housing in many cities.
It seems like a sensible goal that could have practical results, but Carson hasn’t taken it up as a cause yet.
Carson has learned the value and dignity of self-sufficiency over a lifetime of hard work, and he seems to want others to know that same blessing. But his agency appears stalled, and his conundrum persists: Can he find a way to address these perplexing problems on a grand scale, while encouraging micro solutions to address people’s individual situations?
It’s not brain surgery. It may actually be harder.