U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson has angered critics with yet another soundbite showcasing an offensive idea, this time regarding poverty. Turns out it's just a mindset, and if you're poor, it's your mom's fault. Ben Carson blaming bad parenting for poor kids who can't manage to bootstrap their way into a neurosurgery career is not only factually incorrect, it's the kind of victim-blaming mentality that actually perpetuates the cycle of poverty. And this isn't the first time he's masked his disdain for poor people with praise for his mother.
Carson's office didn't immediately respond to Romper's request for comment.
In a Wednesday interview with SiriusXM Radio host Armstrong Williams — who also happens to be Carson's longtime friends, adviser, and sometimes spokesman — Carson said that poverty is "a state of mind," according to NBC News, and that you could "take everything from" a person with the right mindset, even "put them on the street," and they'd easily claw their way back to success. Parents just need to teach their kids "strong values" and "instill into that child the mindset of a winner," according to CNN. And here's the kicker: "If everybody had a mother like mine, nobody would be in poverty. She was a person who absolutely would not accept status of victim."
Carson's narrative surrounding his mother and his upbringing appear to shift depending on what angle he needs; he's been described as both studious and a thug, his mother is sometimes a homeowner and at other times illiterate. She's the one who taught him that "If you don’t succeed, you have only yourself to blame," according to The Washington Post, and she "sometimes took government aid" (Carson's words) while disliking the idea of it. Carson, meanwhile, did not mention whether he disliked taking the free eyeglasses he credited with making him a good student, or the federally funded job program that he depended on after high school, according to the Post.
Carson blamed young and unmarried mothers for kids who "end up in the penal system or the welfare system," according to Talking Points Memo, even though his own mother had her first child at age 20, and eventually divorced her husband. During their separation, she and the children lived in what Carson described as "dire poverty," according to CNN, and what Williams alternatively called "subsidized housing" and "public housing" in two different interviews on the same day, before tweeting that "Dr. Carson's mother worked 3 jobs at a time to keep them out of public housing." They actually stayed with Carson's aunt and uncle in Boston for two years, in an area Carson has said was full of "people lying in the street with bullet holes" and "winos and drunks flopped around," although neighbors and public records tell a different story; The Boston Globe reported that they lived across the street from a zoo while Carson's mother rented out the house she got in the divorce.
Carson can't simultaneously be the person who grew up in poverty and overcame it, and the person who was never a victim of poverty because his mother simply chose not to be poor, especially because the second scenario is impossible. It is possible for people to break the cycle of poverty (often by using the government assistance he criticizes), but no amount of "mindset" shifting alone will accomplish that. Carson was lucky to have a proud, hardworking mother who wasn't poor. But there are plenty of proud, hardworking mothers who are poor, and blaming them for their condition doesn't make them go away.
The truth is that Carson’s childhood experience was far from typical. Carson had the good fortune of attending a predominantly white elementary school, which statistically translates to smaller class size, more qualified staff, and higher funding, all of which contribute to a far superior education than what was available to most children of color at the time. He often points to his mother working several jobs to get by, but at least there were jobs available; the unemployment rate fell from 6 percent to just 3 during the time that she raised him on her own. Today, the United States is just recovering from the longest and worst unemployment streak on record. And while Carson’s mom could depend on neighbors and family to watch the kids while she worked, many don’t have that resource, and child care is now officially unaffordable in 49 U.S. states, according to Fortune. Finally, I wouldn’t dare try to whitesplain the specifics of the cycle of poverty’s effects on the black community to Carson, but he might want to ask a black friend for some basics. An outcome like his took more than just a determined mother; there was a lot of luck involved, too. Carson wasn’t exactly born on third base — more like first or second — but what he fails to realize is that some kids, and their parents, never even got a bat.