In the end, Singleton said, Carson accepted out of a sense of duty that came from having risen to success from humble origins: raised by a single mother, a housekeeper, in Detroit. "He's someone born in an environment where the odds were clearly stacked against him, and he believes by personal experience that he could do a lot of good for others." Kemp agreed. Carson accepted, he said, "because he wanted to do something about poverty." If anything, Kemp said, Carson felt more suited to the HUD job than he would to a health-policy one."Being surgeon general or secretary of [Health and Human Services], I don't think he was fully equipped to do that, having been a neurosurgeon," Kemp said. In other words, Carson knew how little he knew about health policy, an awareness he lacked when it came to social policy. "He thought with HUD, 'It's so clear that our approach to poverty has not been completely successful and we can do better, and I think I have some ideas that can be applied,' " Kemp said.
Underlying this rationale were two related convictions. One was the standard conservative bias against expertise and bureaucracy, according to which experts lacked the "common sense" that an outsider from the private sector could provide -- a conviction shared, of course, by the man who nominated Carson for the job. The other was a more particular conviction that he, Carson, possessed extra doses of such common sense by virtue of his biography.
He's a black man who grew up poor. That automatically makes him qualified to run HUD. Clearly.
He's also got some interesting ideas about what slavery was.
There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder, for less. But they, too, had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters, might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land."
The assembled employees stifled their reaction to this jarringly upbeat characterization of chattel slavery. But in HUD's Baltimore satellite, where many in the heavily African-American office were watching the speech on an online feed at their desks, the gasps were audible.
And when the Trump administration cut the HUD budget by $7 billion, Carson told the HUD employees not to worry, poverty is a state of mind.
But if Carson was troubled by the disembowelment of his department, he showed no sign of it. Even before the final numbers were out, he had assured housing advocates that cuts would be made up for by money dedicated to housing in the big infrastructure bill Trump was promising -- a notion that his fellow Republican Kemp, among others, found far-fetched. "I'm not sure he understood how that would work," Kemp told me. "He was probably repeating what had been told to him." Then, a day after the budget was released, Carson downplayed the importance of programs for the poor in a radio interview with Armstrong Williams, saying that poverty was largely a "state of mind." This, more than anything, seemed to be a crystallization of the Carson philosophy of HUD: that privation would be solved by the power of positive thinking, that his own extraordinary rise was scalable and could be replicated millions of times over.
Two weeks later, Carson went to Capitol Hill to testify on the budget proposal before Congressional panels that would have the final say on the numbers. With Kasper perched over his shoulder, he told both the Senate and House committees that they shouldn't get overly hung up on the cuts. "We must look for human solutions, not just policies and programs," he said. "Our programs must reach out and so must our hearts." The budget, he added, would "help more eligible Americans achieve freedom from regulations and bureaucracy and the ability to govern themselves."
The one thing he seemed concerned about was the possibility of public housing being too luxurious. Yep. That's the problem. Poor people are living too well with their doors that open and close and elevators that only stop working some of the time.
And like Trump, Carson's got his family hanging around, attending meetings, and making decisions. Career employees are leaving. Those who are staying have been barred from doing the work that they normally do. And the HUD secretary running it all is perpetually mentally checked out.