Future HUD secretary Ben Carson ’73 stresses self-sufficiency as goal of government programs

Retired neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate Ben Carson ’73 said in a Yale speech Dec. 8 that predictions he will dismantle federal safety-net programs for the poor as secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are “a bunch of crap.”
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(Photo by Michael Marsland)

Retired neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate Ben Carson ’73 said in a Yale speech Dec. 8 that predictions he will dismantle federal safety-net programs for the poor as secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are “a bunch of crap.”

Carson, who was announced last week as President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for the HUD post, spoke to a packed audience in a large Sterling-Sheffield-Strathcona Hall auditorium. As much as an hour before his evening address, hosted by the student-run William F. Buckley Program, the line of people awaiting admission to the talk had stretched from the front door of the building all the way down Grove Street to Hillhouse Avenue. Many of those waiting had to be turned away for lack of seating.

“People say Carson’s a hypocrite because he grew up poor and must have benefitted from some government programs, and he now wants to remove [them],” the Yale alumnus said. “People come up with this stuff because it fits their narrative. … There is no way I would ever want to do that. But what I do want to do is create ladders of opportunity so that people don’t have to be dependent” on government.

“That’s what real compassion is, in my opinion,” he said. “It’s not about patting people on the head and saying, ‘There, there you poor little thing’ and then taking care of all your needs. It’s about creating a mechanism whereby they can take care of their own needs and they can have some pride in themselves, so they can do for their children.”

Carson stressed the role of education in solving problems, including poverty and the high incarceration rate for young African American males. He noted that many enter prison without an education and job skills and then come out with the same lack of resources, leaving them with little choice but to return to the kind of activities that got them into trouble in the first place.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Carson. “Is there a way we can change that trajectory? … Until we start thinking that way, we will just have a continuation of these problems, and we are not helping ourselves as a nation. Over the course of time, we actually increase the burden on ourselves, and we could eventually collapse under the burden.”

Carson said that his mother’s emphasis on reading and learning helped contribute to his own success. He described growing up poor in Detroit and Boston, living in tenements, and sometimes caving in to peer pressure. He recalled staring at a sunbeam through broken tenement windows and worrying that he’d probably not survive to the age of 25, since so many males in his community did not. His mother did not want her family to live in public housing “because there was a lot of danger there and she wanted to shield us from that danger,” he said.

“If you think about communities that are disadvantaged, we have to think about why they are disadvantaged and what we can do to change that dynamic,” Carson said in the talk. “It’s not just a matter of providing them housing and security. It’s a matter of the right kind of education, the right kind of transportation, medical care.” He stressed, for example, the importance of having neighborhood health clinics to prevent the use of expensive emergency-room care.

Carson said it is imperative to begin education and literacy programs with the very young, and explained how the more than 160 “reading rooms” that his Ben Carson Reading Project have set up for children around the country in disadvantaged neighborhoods are always colorful, warm, and imaginative in order to help inspire youngsters to read. He stressed how America’s democratic system of government relies on a “well-informed and educated populace,” saying that without it, “our freedom would begin to erode” and that “dishonest people would be able to manipulate the population.”

Carson advised young audience members to think outside the box and to be willing to endure criticism — two qualities that he said helped lead to successes in his own professional life. He noted that he had been criticized for doing pioneering brain surgeries that others thought were too risky, and recalled how one of these — the successful separation of Zambian conjoined twins in South Africa in 1997 — resulted in people dancing in the streets with joy.

“Real success is using the talent that God has given you to elevate other people,” said Carson.

During his address, the Yale alumnus never mentioned Donald Trump. He acknowledged his own conservative stance on abortion but stressed the importance of religious tolerance, and said in response to a question from one audience member that he does admire some liberals for their compassion and common sense.

“We need to be Americans first and not Democrats or Republicans,” said Carson, adding that having continual dialog with one another  —even when we have opposing views — might make people realize they are more united in thought than divided.

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Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,