The poverty 'mind-set'

There's a grain of truth and a mountain of myopia in Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson's assertion during a radio interview that having the "right mind-set" can bring a person out of poverty and the "wrong mind-set" can condemn him or her to it despite all the advantages in the world.

No doubt that talented, driven and lucky individuals can, through sheer will and hard work, lift themselves out of poverty. Dr. Carson is a prime example. He overcame enormous odds in life and rightly serves as an inspiration to many. But his moralistic view of poverty discounts the long history of injustice that makes the path out of it so difficult. Most disturbingly, Dr. Carson's view discounts the degree to which the nation's legacy of racism continues to hinder the economic prospects of blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups.

It's been a half-century since the legal barriers to economic advancement for minorities were lifted, yet the correlation between race and poverty remains unmistakable. Blacks and Hispanics are more than twice as likely as whites to meet the federal definition of poverty, and that badly undercounts the number of people who struggle to make ends meet. The racial disparity in poverty rates for children is even more stark.

Researchers at the University of Michigan's National Poverty Center sought to explain why that gap persists. Racism continues to exist, of course, whether it is overt or the result of implicit bias, but what the researchers found is that even small disadvantages in education, health, access to social networks, quality housing and so on have a cumulative and cascading effect that diminishes opportunities.

That phenomenon is readily apparent in Baltimore. The city's early efforts to segregate by race have resulted in concentrated pockets of poverty where residents live in housing that is both unaffordable and unsafe, exposing them and their children to lead paint and other environmental toxins that lead to chronic conditions such as asthma. Transportation networks that could bring them to jobs are inefficient and insufficient. Schools are both antiquated and segregated by race and class — a well documented driver of poor academic outcomes. Access to fresh, nutritious food is severely limited.

Such disadvantages feed on each other. Children raised in poverty enter school with smaller vocabularies not because their parents don't understand the importance of reading to them but because they spend far more time than more affluent parents getting to and from work, often multiple low-paying jobs, to make ends meet, and they can't afford the kind of high-quality child care that middle and upper-class families do. Chronic absenteeism isn't the result of parents who don't emphasize the importance of education, it's a product of poor health and unreliable transportation.

Dr. Carson's misconceptions about the causes of poverty are related to his oft stated belief that government assistance fosters dependency and a "poverty of spirit." In his interview this week with Armstrong Williams on SiriusXM Radio, he said such aid is merely "sustaining them in a position of poverty" but that it should instead "provide the ladder of opportunity ... the mechanism that will demonstrate to them what can be done."

Yet Dr. Carson eschews the very sort of interventions that could be most effective in providing that ladder of opportunity. Dr. Carson runs a federal agency charged not only with providing people an opportunity to live in decent conditions but also to foster desegregation. It was on a path to do so during the Obama administration, when officials sought to expand programs that helped people to move to communities with more economic and educational opportunities, like a highly successful but limited effort here in Baltimore. But Dr. Carson, then a candidate for president, derided it as misguided social engineering.

The reason the War on Poverty hasn't succeeded isn't that we've done too much, it's that we've done far too little, and under Dr. Carson and President Donald Trump, we're poised to do much less. The president's budget would slash social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicare — and cut billions from HUD. It may be dead on arrival in Congress, but Dr. Carson's remarks won't help nudge the debate in the right direction. They offer a self-serving justification for those born to advantage not to concern themselves with helping those who weren't.

We admire Dr. Carson's accomplishments and the determination he showed in overcoming the substantial obstacles he faced in life. But that story is the basis for inspiration, not sound public policy.

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