- - Wednesday, March 8, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

We should all want Ben Carson to succeed. If he does, the fight against poverty can be won. If he does not, then we continue down the same road we’ve been on for more than half a century. It goes in never-ending circles of more spending, more promises and fewer results. This endless loop of liberal orthodoxy brought us 80 uncoordinated means-tested federal welfare programs costing $744 billion annually.

We have no way of knowing if public benefits truly help anybody. How many people became self-sufficient due to food stamps, Section 8 vouchers, home heating assistance and cash welfare benefits? You see, the government does not measure outcomes on metrics such as employment or ending drug abuse. If the government did measure such things, we would know where to target resources instead of trying to meet every human need imaginable.

Dr. Carson took the job few conservatives in Washington want, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While HUD does not represent the entire welfare state, more than any other Cabinet department, its sole reason for being is to help Americans join the middle class.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation creating HUD in 1965 he said, “We must not let our cities become symbols of a sordid society.” Fast-forward to today and President Trump, in his speech to Congress, cited Baltimore and Detroit among examples of urban decline. Nobody can argue with that. The mayor of Detroit campaigned on fixing broken street lights. Baltimore went up in flames following a fatal police encounter with an unemployed, young black man. Dr. Carson is intimately familiar with Detroit, where he was born and raised, and Baltimore, where he spent his career as a neurosurgeon.

HUD is missing in action when it comes to addressing the ills of urban America. It has meandered way off course during the Obama administration, inserting itself into local land-use decisions through its fair housing rule, a politically correct and meaningless focus on climate change, and providing Indian and rural housing where other departments and agencies already have a role. Such mission creep will not help anyone escape poverty in Baltimore, Detroit or anywhere else. Perhaps a physician is what we need after all, somebody who can diagnose, triage and treat the problem of poverty in America. But don’t say that to the poverty-industrial complex.

When Mr. Trump announced Dr. Carson as Cabinet secretary, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter told The Wall Street Journal: “For the serious practitioners of public policy, I cannot imagine those professionals could be more demoralized by this announcement today.” Thank you, Mayor — you just summed up the entire problem. The HUD secretary should not be going to work every day attempting to please practitioners of public policy.

Dr. Carson told senators during his confirmation hearing that he will take a “holistic” approach to public housing. That means addressing the underlying conditions that cause homelessness in the first place such as substance abuse, lack of education and job skills, and broken families. Organizations like ours, and many other private, nonprofits across the country, train our case managers to ask open-ended questions when someone needs to stay in our homeless shelters or enroll in our drug rehabilitation program: “What brought you here?” Answering that question elicits a response that identifies entrenched problems that go beyond putting a roof over someone’s head.

Contrast that with the approach of the last eight years. The Obama administration sought to warehouse people with no questions asked about maintaining sobriety or trying to find work. How did that happen? The Obama administration promised to end homelessness, and appointed officials and bureaucrats followed suit, devising a program called Rapid Rehousing, which sweeps people off the streets and into subsidized housing.

Illustrating the liberal mindset of fighting poverty, previous HUD Secretary Julian Castro asked Congress for $11 billion to create a new entitlement for this program. To justify this request, Mr. Castro pointed to a massive HUD report that nobody has time to read. Someone did read it — the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness — which concluded, “Definitive answers were nowhere to be found” regarding Rapid Rehousing’s results. So much for the brilliance of public policy practitioners.

Dr. Carson will face a stubborn bureaucracy, big-city political machines, lousy media coverage and members of Congress who will question his every move. The first challenge has been met: putting someone in charge who can look at poverty and homelessness anew. Perhaps the first step, if HUD is to be relevant in fighting poverty, is to stop the status-quo madness and back someone to lead it without a government resume.

• Vann Ellison is the president and CEO of Naples, Florida-based St. Matthew’s House.

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