In Defense of Ben Carson – A “State of Mind”

I’m under no illusions that Ben Carson is the most eloquent of speakers. He’s said some fairly knuckleheaded things, particularly throughout the course of his presidential campaign.

But his latest comments don’t deserve the response he’s received, particularly when they’re backed by plenty of research.

I’ve said it before: if typical media outlets want to win back the swaths of people who distrust them, they need to be better in the way they report, and that means hiring more conservatives or even moderates to their teams. And unless they win back that trust, our social fabric, and their jobs as facilitators of government accountability are in jeopardy.

Here are the comments that people are responding to:

“I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind.” Let’s break this down.

“…to a large extent…” –What does this mean? Well he didn’t say the majority of poverty is a state of mind. He also didn’t qualify what he means by “a large extent.” How much of an extent is it? A large extent. How big is that? Maybe not as much as you think.

“…is also…”–meaning that prior to this part of the conversation were other aspects of poverty that he discussed that are obviously missing from the clips played on these various news outlets. Given his experience, he obviously lived through times where he felt his mindset change and his choices influenced by the poverty he experienced. He is, after all, the first HUD secretary to ever have lived in public housing.

But everyone fixated on that one sentence. The most egregious offender was USAToday, who said “Housing Secretary Ben Carson: Poverty Caused by ‘a state of mind.”

That’s not what he said. He didn’t say poverty is caused by a state of mind, but is also a state of mind.

Let’s get more context:

“You take somebody that 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 could give them everything in the world, they’ll work their way right back down to the bottom. A lot of it has to do with what we teach children…You have to instill into that child the mindset of a winner…there’s also a poverty of spirit. You develop a certain mindset.”
Note that he did not say that the poor are poor because they have the wrong mindset, or that their state is purely due to their own choices (a view which I would reject). He also did not say that the rich are rich because they have the right mindset. He is talking about both a cause and an effect of income poverty.
In reality, this whole conversation is not one about poverty per se, but about economic mobility. What he is suggesting is that economic mobility has a mindset component.

What research supports that view?

For a simple overview, Melissa Kearney, Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland and a scholar at Brookings (not exactly a raging right-wing operation) has some important comments on the subject.

Citing Raj Chetty, et al’s seminal work on geographic variation in upward economic mobility, she shows the following chart of things that are strongly or weakly correlated (positively or negatively) with upward mobility within a commuting zone:

chetty chart

She comments: “If you look at the factors in yellow, these are the things that are highly correlated with rates of upward mobility. We’ve got the way our communities and our cities are organized. Residential segregation, that really matters. Social capital index, fraction religious, the fraction of households headed by single moms, and married and divorce rates… The things that are policy levers that, as public finance economists, we might have wanted to pull to make things better, those come in really low on this chart. [Things like] state EITC exposure, tax progress, CVT, college per capita, and college tuition. The data is suggesting that those are not the clues for the things that really matter…So, I think this is really challenging. And it suggests culture matters…But I think one way, as social scientists, we can think about it is this doesn’t just fall from the sky. It’s in part a reaction—a response of individuals—to their world around them and the economic conditions and opportunities that they’re seeing. So, their economic experience, their childhood experiences shape their behaviors—their decision to stay in school, to get married, or to have a birth outside of marriage. And then these things affect their rates or their likelihood of upward mobility or being in a stable or unstable relationship. And so, we’ve got this cycle of behaviors responding to conditions reflecting behaviors, and that’s what we need to figure out how to address.”

Is this not a “poverty of spirit” or the development of a mindset that exacerbates existing income poverty?

She then has 4 recommendations for the way forward, the second of which is:

We need to address the outlook and attitudes of these low-income kids growing up in disadvantaged areas. I think there are a lot of low-cost ways to do that, which don’t require federal legislation or even a lot of federal money.

Kearney’s own research suggests that living in areas that have high lower-tail inequality (the gap between the median and the bottom–not the rich–the median income) combined with poor upward mobility prospects increases the likelihood that a teen decides to drop out of high school. This is not a “rich hoarding all the money” argument since we’re talking about median income; it’s a decision made by youth that signals that they don’t feel the investment or the effort is worth it.

The Moving to Opportunity experiment suggests how not only income, but family and other aspects of one’s life change when their surroundings change. When you take a child out of an environment in which a poverty of spirit is pervasive, they see a way forward. In Denver, the occupational makeup of the neighborhood that low-income families move into can increase the achievement of youth, particularly those who move at a younger age. Youth surrounded by people who model achievement via professional and managerial occupations are less likely to be on public assistance and more likely to graduate high school.

If poverty were purely a monetary phenomenon, none of these effects should exist. After all, why should it matter what your neighbors do for work if you’re already making all the choices you need to get out of poverty and spring your children into success, but are simply held back by structural barriers?

Not all rich people are rich because they’ve done something great and worthwhile. And not all poor people are poor because they’ve made bad choices. On both accounts some are and some are not.

But let’s not pretend that no one was ever in poverty because of the choices they’ve made and the attitudes they entertain; and let’s rid ourselves of the notion that nobody was ever able to escape poverty because of their choices or their mindset…

Or else the whole conversation trivializes the experiences of the very people we’re trying to help. Poverty is more complicated that money alone. Pretending otherwise only harms.


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