Ben Carson: From Neurosurgeon to HUD Secretary

In 2013, Dr. Ben Carson announced that he would be retiring after a very successful career as a renowned neurosurgeon.

Just over three years later, Carson agreed to put his retirement plans on hold, and enter the tumultuous world of American politics; after his surprise presidential victory, then President-elect Donald Trump—Carson’s former rival for the Republican Party presidential nomination– asked him to join his cabinet as Secretary of Housing & Urban Development (HUD).

To some observers, the selection of Carson to be HUD Secretary appeared to be an odd choice. Given his impressive medical history, some observers thought that Carson would be a candidate for Secretary of Health & Human Services (HHS); however, in keeping with his stated goal of ‘real change’ in Washington, Trump offered the HUD role to Carson due—at least in part—to his unique personal history.

A Detroit native, Carson was raised by a family of very modest means; Carson went on to graduate from Yale University and later graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School, after which he was accepted by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s neurosurgery program. From there, his medical career soared, and Carson went on to become a world-renowned neurosurgeon.

As he takes over the realm of HUD, Carson will need to be as deft in his managerial skills as he was in the operating room. First established by President Johnson in 1965, HUD is now seen as one the mainstays of the US government.

With a budget of over $47 billion, and charged with assisting millions of low-income renters and other homeowners avoid foreclosures, HUD has long been a flash point for those both supporting and opposing government assistance programs. Critics of Secretary Carson’s appointment worry about his lack of experience in running a massive federal bureaucracy; supporters counter that Carson’s personal history, which included receiving government assistance in his youth, would prove useful in his new role.

Without any record of public service, HUD observers are scanning Carson’s writings as indicators of what to expect from the new Secretary. In his book “A More Perfect Union”, Carson wrote that government “should build and maintain infrastructure that supports population growth, business and self-improvement endeavors”; however, he was quick to add that government “should not meddle” in peoples’ affairs or “control every aspect of their lives, as is done in many communist or socialist countries.”

In general terms, most HUD watchers expect Carson will be among the stronger advocates of deregulation within the Trump Administration.

In his first speech to HUD staff in his role as secretary, Carson may have well set the tone for his tenure. Stressing the importance of “fairness for everybody”, Carson was also quick to warn that there will be “no favorites for anybody, no extra”—without elaborating what elements of HUD programs he was referencing. Questions remain as to whether, for example, the Trump Administration will look to curb housing subsidies given to lower-income Americans.

In keeping with his longstanding philosophy to “unleash potential” of individual Americans, Carson has frequently emphasized that—in his view—individual liberty should always supercede even well-intentioned government programs.

Carson has also spoken frequently about the benefits of using partnerships between the public and private sectors as a means towards assisting those in need of help.

In his first address to HUD employees, Carson said that “we don’t necessarily have to always depend on the government and government financing”, adding that there “is a lot more money outside of government than there is inside of government—although there are some people who would like to change that. Providing opportunities that result in win-win situations, that’s how we get more of the private sector involved in governmental programs.”

Over the course of the next several weeks, Carson has pledged to travel beyond Washington on a nationwide “listening tour”—primarily to learn firsthand about housing policies that are working, as well as those that are not.

Carson said that, ultimately, his governing philosophy as HUD Secretary will be “giving first pass to the people who are actually involved (in housing) as opposed to imposing upon them from above.”

While new directives have yet to be issued by America’s new HUD secretary, exactly how that governing philosophy manifests itself in actual HUD policies will be closely watched by all the department’s stakeholders—in both the private and public sectors.