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HUD Secretary Ben Carson Clarifies Remarks About Poverty


Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has been criticized for saying poverty is a state of mind. He said that last week after the Trump administration asked Congress to cut billions of dollars from housing programs for the poor. Today Carson took a few minutes to talk to NPR's Pam Fessler and explain his position in more detail.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Carson is a soft-spoken man, but his words since becoming housing secretary have struck some people as especially harsh, like when he said last week that, quote, "poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind." Today Carson softened those comments a bit.

BEN CARSON: It is a factor. A part of poverty can be the state of mind - poor in spirit.

FESSLER: And he says it's that mindset or spirit that can hold people back, especially if they think there's no way out of poverty.

CARSON: One of the things that I think government can do very well is to help create the right kinds of mindset, the frame of mind by providing ladders of opportunity.

FESSLER: One way he thinks HUD can do that is by creating neighborhood centers where low-income people can go to get some basic skills, to find mentors and even to find daycare.

CARSON: For so many of the young ladies who end up getting pregnant and then their education stops, provide them a mechanism so that they can go back and get their GED, get their associate's degree, their bachelor's degree.

FESSLER: So they're able to take care of themselves and their children without government help. The problem for many anti-poverty advocates is that Carson's talking about what even he admits are just working concepts. Diane Yentel, head of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, says she's much more worried about the reality of HUD's budget. The Trump administration wants to cut it by more than $6 billion next year alone.

DIANE YENTEL: If the Trump budget were enacted, more than 250,000 households could lose their housing assistance, putting them at immediate risk of eviction and homelessness.

FESSLER: And she takes issue with Carson's comment that poverty is related to an individual's state of mind.

YENTEL: Poverty is not a state of mind. It is an economic condition. Housing poverty specifically is caused by skyrocketing rents and stagnating wages. It's quite simple, really.

FESSLER: And an argument her group and others will make to Congress as it considers the Trump budget - Yentel and other advocates are also skeptical of Carson's insistence that no one will be thrown out on the street under his watch. But then again, the new housing secretary escaped poverty himself and is an optimist. And he wants others to be as well.

CARSON: And I would encourage people to go to the Horatio Alger Society website and read those hundreds of biographies there of Americans who rose through incredible odds and severe poverty to become leaders in our society.

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.