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The Poverty State of Mind and the State’s Obligations to the Poor

Recently, Ben Carson claimed that “poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind.” As the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Carson is well positioned to receive a real education in the effects and limitations of poverty. If he were to listen to HUD residents, including those children who struggle as a result of exposure to everything from lead in HUD properties and violence in their neighborhoods, Carson might be able to see poverty not from his vantage point but from the perspective of the most vulnerable. Children packed into over-crowded and failing schools do not need to be told that poverty is their fault or the fault of their parents, what they need more than platitudes about the “right mindset” are resources and support. Well-paid teachers, new school supplies, art and physical education enrichment opportunities should not be reserved for kids in the best school districts. Nor should poor kids and their parents have to worry about whether there will be food in the morning or at night.

To some degree of course, Carson knows all this. Carson tells the impressive story of his own rise from poverty to neurosurgeon in his 1990 memoir, Gifted Hands. Childhood hardship leaves scars, an aftertaste, that even Evian cannot completely wash away.

But for those with experience of upward mobility, it is all too tempting to make poverty about individual choices. The Horatio Alger narrative, that though hard work anything is possible, is alive and well in Trump’s America. Carson, in an interview with National Public Radio meant to clarify his original “state of mind” statement, said as much: “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.” The story is simple: We chose to work hard, we did better than our parents and are now enjoying the American Dream; if our story was possible, it is possible for all poor people. But where this self-congratulatory story fails is that it mistakenly takes isolated experiences and treats them as universal truths, not recognizing the extent to which self-made success stories are not the rule but the exception that proves the rule. All the research shows that America is one of the least mobile societies in the developed world. The hurdles facing a poor person are real, even with the right mindset, and one misstep, illness, or setback can make it nearly impossible to escape poverty.

Carson is not alone is characterizing poverty as “a state of mind.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan argued in 2014 that “we have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” Welfare reform under President Clinton was built on such rhetoric and Trump’s massive cuts to nearly every social program, including food stamps, legal aid, and Medicaid, are similarly built upon the belief that poverty has individual not structural roots. That there is not much truth to this characterization has not prevented it, a not so-subtle version of blaming the victim, from becoming a recurring conservative rallying cry.

But for the moment, assume that Carson and Ryan are right, that poverty is a result of poor people not having the right mindset. That does not answer the question of what rights the poor ought to have. Even if this negative characterization of the poor is true and poverty is “a state of mind,” does that mean that the poor should not have their basic needs, and those of their children, met? Does it mean that we should tolerate the fact that even if they work full time, some people cannot afford decent housing? Or that we should pretend that the poor do not have health care insurance because they are choosing, as Jason Chaffetz suggested, to buy new iPhones instead? I believe we are a strong enough, a wealthy enough nation that questions about why people are poor should not blind us to their suffering nor prevent us from providing for the poor regardless of fault or past “bad” choices. We as a country and as a people can afford to attack poverty and alleviate the suffering of the poor even if we assume that there is merit to Carson’s idea that the poor are to blame for their hardships.

We are also smart enough to recognize that poverty is more than a state of mind and to push back against those who would suggest otherwise. Ultimately, we have to decide if we are a country with heart or if we are hard-hearted when it comes to the poor.

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Ezra Rosser is a professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law.

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