HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s comments earlier this month suggesting poverty can be a “state of mind” are still in the news, as liberals in the media and beyond exult in painting a conservative – and a black one at that – as callous to the suffering of the poor. For example, The New York Times ran a straw-man “Upshot” piece Tuesday rebutting Carson’s “idea” that people are poor because of problematic mindsets, pointing to studies that suggest it’s the other way around.
But in his interview on Sirius XM Radio’s Armstrong Williams interview program, Carson never said people are poor in the first place because of how they think. He was speaking about social mobility – and not in a simplistic “if poor people just applied themselves they’d escape” way. Instead, he proposed a double-sided thought experiment:
You take somebody who 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 can give them everything in the world — they’ll work their way right back down to the bottom.
(That assertion, strangely, is the crux of the 1983 Eddie Murphy-Dan Aykroyd comedy Trading Places – in which wealthy brothers impoverish Aykroyd’s businessman character and enrich Murphy’s street hustler just to see what happens.)
Of course there are exceptions, but Carson’s generalization is largely right. There is no natural way to study the first group – people whose riches disappear overnight – to see how long it takes them to escape poverty, if they even can. But we can easily explore the second group by looking at lottery winners, largely drawn from the lower end of the income scale. Think about it: their mindsets have not changed, only their bank accounts. Overwhelmingly they follow Carson’s script.
According to the National Endowment for Financial Education, 70 percent of people who get sudden wealth (winning lotteries or favorable settlements to lawsuits, for example), declare bankruptcy within a few years – meaning they’re worse off than before they became rich.
And yes, “mindset” appears to be largely responsible.
According to endowment spokesman Paul Golden, “If you’ve never had the comfort of financial security before, if you were really eking out a living from paycheck to paycheck, if you’ve never managed money before, it can be really confusing.”
The kind of immediate escape from poverty Carson described is no substitute for years of hard work and good habits which – along with favorable circumstances and good luck – can lead to gradual advancement. In fact, there’s a joke among financial planners: “If you have an enemy, give him a lottery ticket.”
But what about the other direction? The wealthy people with the right mindset who Carson projected would bounce back if left penniless? Well, in his Sirius interview he cited a Brookings Institution study that supported his view – a study which the Upshot piece and other rebuttals to Carson blew off. It showed that all but two percent of Americans can escape poverty by doing three things: finish high school, get married, and delay having children until their marriages.
Those steps are not a mysterious cryptic formula for quick riches. Rather, they are the expression of the kind of values – yes, the “mindset” – of people whose decisions make poverty unlikely.
The media storm over Carson’s comments – and the gleefully outraged Tweets from liberal heroes like George Takei and Valerie Jarrett – have been so fierce because liberals are deeply invested in demonstrating that Republicans are clueless about poverty. And they are double-decker-hold-the-mayo invested in demonstrating that about black Republicans.
The GOP is already very competitive among white voters making less than $30,000 a year, and if Republicans can expand those numbers to include working-class blacks, the Democrats are in big trouble. Alas, Carson isn’t always the best communicator. He can get tripped up in flights of fancy and theory even when his basic point is solid. Not that the most convincing black conservative could escape Democrat fury regarding Republican path-form-poverty ideas.
Sometimes, Carson may seem to downplay the struggles of the poor because his own origin story is so extraordinary. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Sonya Carson raised her two boys in Detroit, it wasn’t uncommon for people to say regarding blacks, “Well, he’s no brain surgeon” and “Well, he’s no rocket scientist.” But through her tough love – which a grateful Carson often praises – by the 1980s she was the mother of one of each (Curtis Carson is an aeronautical engineer).
Mrs. Carson’s astonishing accomplishment may indeed make her a unicorn. But don’t mistake Secretary Carson’s effusive praise for his mother as a literal belief that good parenting alone could end poverty. Ignore the media distortions and liberal mockery. Carson’s analysis of the connection between mindset and mobility is actually spot-on.