Men may forget many memories of their childhood. But many of you know — as I know — that no man and no woman ever grows too old or too successful to forget the memory of a childhood home without lights, and that was without water, and that was without covering on the floor. And I have never forgotten.
With those words in the White House Rose Garden, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965, the basis for creation of the federal agency known as HUD. Its purpose is to use the power of the federal government to provide housing for poor Americans who otherwise wouldn't have decent homes.
Johnson knew that charity doesn't always abound to escape the grip of poverty. It surprises me when others who needed divine intervention and more won't acknowledge it. That includes Ben Carson, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for HUD secretary, whose comments suggest he doesn't believe in HUD's mission.
Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon with no experience in either housing or urban development, likes to dash water on government assistance programs. He says his mother shunned them, though they sometimes got food stamps when he was a child in Detroit.
Perhaps Trump chose Carson because four past HUD secretaries were African Americans, including Robert C. Weaver, who in 1966 became the nation's first black cabinet member; Patricia R. Harris; Samuel R. Pierce; and Alphonso Jackson. HUD also has had three Hispanic secretaries: Henry G. Cisneros, Mel Martinez, and Julian Castro.
More important than ethnicity is an affinity for tackling the poverty and housing problems of America's cities. In fact, four past HUD secretaries had served as mayors, including Maurice "Moon" Landrieu, New Orleans; Roy A. Bernardi, Syracuse, N.Y.; Cisneros, Austin, Texas; and Castro, San Antonio. George W. Romney was governor of Michigan before becoming HUD secretary in the Nixon administration.
Since Trump considered an outspoken critic, Mitt Romney, for a cabinet position, he could have shown he really does want to be president for all Americans by offering the HUD job to a Democrat. Either former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter or former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke could hit the ground running to head an agency with 8,300 employees and a $49 billion budget. But they can't match Carson's apparent disdain for the agency he has been tapped to lead.
In a Washington Times commentary last year, Carson criticized a new HUD rule that ties federal funding to a city's plans to put affordable housing in more affluent neighborhoods. Research shows poor children who grow up in economically diverse neighborhoods are more likely to succeed, but Carson compared the HUD rule to forced busing in the 1960s.
"There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous," Carson said.
Explain how a man who doesn't trust the government to handle housing policy can lead the federal agency charged with setting housing policy. Trump's choice of Carson brings to mind the lawsuit filed against Trump and his father in 1973 for discriminating against minority families trying to rent units in their New York apartment buildings. The case was settled with an agreement by the Trumps not to discriminate.
Initial reports of Carson's nomination touted his having lived in public housing as a qualification for the post. But Carson never lived in the "projects." Maybe if he had, he would have a perspective other than his suggestion that if he could escape poverty, anyone can. What he misses is that it takes longer for some people to succeed and that many who try hard never make it.
I lived in public housing from when I was born to age 23. Most of the children I grew up with eventually found their way out of the projects. A few returned as adults, knowing there were too few options to raise their children in safer neighborhoods with better schools. They could have used a plan tying HUD funding to a city's efforts to provide affordable housing in better settings.
Before dismissing such efforts, Carson should consider Johnson's words in creating HUD. "It is not enough for us to erect towers of stone and glass, or to lay out vast suburbs of order and conformity," he said. "We must seek and we must find ways to preserve and to perpetuate in the city the individuality, the human dignity, the respect for individual rights, the devotion to individual responsibility that has been part of the American character and the strength of the American system."
Fulfilling Johnson's vision requires a strong HUD, not one hampered by a leader who doesn't really believe in its mission.