The United States Senate has confirmed Ben Carson—a pediatric neurosurgeon and former Director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center—as the new secretary of housing and urban development. Now, conservatives have the privilege of watching Dr. Carson perform surgery on the ailing Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Secretary Carson will oversee an agency tasked with assisting financially disadvantaged renters, revitalizing inner cities, and helping low-income homeowners avoid foreclosures. Americans should be optimistic about Dr. Carson’s leadership. Not only will he be empathetic to the plight of those who are financially disadvantaged (given that he grew up in the inner city and sometimes was the recipient of food stamps), but his conservative approach will bring the HUD back to life.
Empathy and Christian Concern
Secretary Carson brings Christian motivations to the task. Christians believe that God created human beings in his “image” (Gen 1:26-28), a description which bestows great dignity on each person, whether wealthy or poor. Additionally, we believe that God want us to build cities in which we can flourish and live peaceably with each other. In fact, the Bible says that our eternal destiny is urban; we will live together eternally in the “New Jerusalem,” a city in which humans will flourish together in an environment characterized by justice, love, and peace (Rev 21-22).
As urban pastor Tim Keller has noted, the upshot of the Bible’s teaching is that Christians should be motivated to “seek the well-being of the city” (Jer 29:7). We should be motivated to build cities that are places of safety, social and cultural development, and moral and spiritual vitality. We must also combat the racism, classism, and violence that often characterizes life in diverse and densely populated cities. And we should be driven to help those who have less than we do.
An Authentically Conservative Approach
Christian motivation must be put into political action, and this combination of Christian motivation and conservative political action is why Secretary Carson is especially well-poised to bring positive change to HUD. Although his comprehensive plan is yet to be revealed, we should expect the sort of plan that includes at least three items: changing the criteria for HUD’s success, empowering urban entrepreneurs, and cooperating with other institutions.
1. Changing the Criteria for Evaluating HUD’s Success
At a reception following President Trump’s inauguration, Carson signaled his desire to change the criteria by which we judge HUD’s success. “For a long time government has counted success by the number of people they can put in public housing, he said. “We need to count success based on the number of people we get out of public housing.” What Secretary Carson means is that he wants financially disadvantaged persons to flourish to the extent that they no longer need public housing.
One way to do that, as Howard Husock recently argued, is to let new subsidized tenants know that they should not expect lifetime housing support. Putting time limits on subsidized housing will not only free up housing for persons on a waiting list, but also cause employment rates and incomes to rise. Husock offers the example of the Moving to Work program, in which a “time limit” implementation caused a 12% increase in incomes and a 17% increase in employment rates.
2. Empowering Urban Entrepreneurs
Another way to revitalize urban communities and help financially-disadvantaged persons is to empower urban entrepreneurs. In January, Carson argued that urban development will ride on the back of a work ethic and an entrepreneurial spirit. “It was the ‘can do’ spirit that made America into a great place, and the last thing we need to do is to trade that ‘can do’ spirit for a ‘what can you do for me’ spirit.”
How do we empower urban entrepreneurs? We empower them by nurturing an entrepreneurial environment. To the extent that cities can reduce regulations and stimulate new business initiatives, they give financially disadvantaged residents an opportunity to climb completely out of poverty. In an immigrant neighborhood, for example, starting a nail salon, an auto repair shop, or a handyman business can put a person on the path to lifelong financial stability.
3. Cooperating with other Institutions
Finally, as Secretary Carson so often notes in his speeches and writings, the government should not suck all the air out of the public square Instead, it should do what it can to help society’s other institutions—such as families, churches, schools, and non-profit organizations—to breathe and flourish.
This might mean fostering competition between private groups (such as philanthropists and religious charities) and public agencies in order to stimulate new ideas for addressing long-standing urban problems. It could mean starting voucher programs for schools and housing, so that poor renters will have more housing and school options. Regardless of the specific means, Carson’s approach will place value on numerous institutions other than the federal government.
A Conservative Moment
For American conservatives in general, and Christian conservatives in particular, Secretary Carson’s confirmation is a unique moment. It is our opportunity to demonstrate not only compassion for the poor but the effectiveness of a genuinely conservative approach to housing and urban development. It is our chance to disprove the dominant political narrative that says we do not care about persons who are financially disadvantaged and socially marginalized. So let’s join Secretary Carson in finding Christian and conservative ways of working on their behalf, so that each of us—rich or poor—has an opportunity to flourish in our American cities.