June 20, 2017
Recently, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said that poverty is a state of mind, and having the right mind-set will let people escape poverty. He was both right and wrong. There is a poverty mind-set we should discuss, but it’s not the one Carson lamented. The problem is not that people living in poverty need to have a better attitude to escape poverty. It’s that all of us should have a better attitude when it comes to poor people.
Other researchers have detailed the compelling evidence that Carson conflates cause and effect; to the extent poor people feel hopeless and helpless, it’s the poverty they confront that causes these feelings, and not the other way around.
But Carson’s error runs deeper. Implicit in his understanding of poverty — which many share — is that people are poor because they aren’t working and they made bad choices and decisions that landed them in poverty and keep them there. It might surprise Carson to learn that many poor people agree with him.