Moments after Ben Carson called poverty “a state of mind,” much of the mainstream media and other foes of the Trump administration went hysterical. The director of Housing and Urban Development is callous toward the poor, we were told.
NBC News instantly determined Carson was “under fire.” SiriusXM’s Zerlina Maxwell tweeted: “Next month, I’m going to tell my landlord that I paid my rent with positive thinking!”
“Still in poverty? It’s your own fault for not trying hard enough to get out of it,” said a smarmy article in The Guardian.
That is not what Carson said and not what he meant.
A more objective media culture would try to discern the wisdom of a man who overcame poverty and devoted his life to saving children and helping the poor.
Carson used to be a media darling. He grew up in poverty in Detroit, parented by a single mother who could not read. He struggled for years to achieve passing grades, then worked hard enough in high school to earn acceptance to Yale. He became a world-renowned pediatric brain surgeon who successfully took on patients others could not help.
“Benjamin S. Carson spends most of his time giving,” states the lead paragraph of a glowing 2003 Baltimore Sun profile.
Carson founded and endowed various charities for the poor, including one that awarded 1,040 scholarships in a decade. Another Carson charity paid medical bills for the uninsured. Carson earned millions in the operating room and gave much of it away. Big Brothers Big Sisters recognized him as a humanitarian for his work with disadvantaged children.
Carson told the Sun how a rich man with the wrong mindset is poor.
“You can live your life unto yourself, be selfish, put your feet up in your house, drive your nice BMW and not give a hoot about anyone else. But it will come back. You’ll get the same thing,” Carson said.
The media’s affection for Carson ended the day he spoke critically of then-President Barack Obama’s health care law at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. Carson, the world learned that day, was conservative.
The concept of rich and poor mindsets helped Charles Dickens invent the characters Scrooge and “Tiny Tim” Cratchit. Great literature throughout time has exploited a belief that poverty and wealth involve mindset. Life is not all about cash on hand.
In a Facebook thread, we came across a reaction to Carson’s words from nonprofit guru Robin Behel Rogers, a former executive of the downtown YMCA in Colorado Springs, Colo. “Happiness is a state of mind. Sadness is a state of mind. Gratitude is a state of mind. Abundance is a state of mind. And yes, poverty is a state of mind,” Rogers wrote. “The choices you make determine the life that you live. To thine own self be true. Shakespeare.”
A poor person may be rich in heart and mind, as a wealthy person may be poor in heart and mind. In practical terms, countless Americans have climbed from poverty to wealth. Conversely, a TV show about lottery winners tells us most lose their nonearned fortunes quickly.
Carson is not a playwright. He directs a federal agency tasked with improving lives of the poor. It is an immense responsibility. We are thankful and relived that Carson has proved his love for helping the poor.
Impoverished minds, and gotcha-style journalists, will naturally portray Carson’s statement as a heartless jab that casts blame on those who suffer. Others will allow a successful philanthropist to share a big-picture, philosophical view of poverty and wealth. They will take it as a constructive message of respect, hope and inspiration - as Carson intended.