Seven weeks in and he’s sticking to his promises to help the urban poor and improve school choice.By Jason L. Riley
During the campaign, Donald Trump said that improving the quality of life in our nation’s inner cities would be a focus of his presidency and that better outcomes for the urban poor would flow from better educational opportunities. Apparently, it wasn’t just talk.
Since winning the election, Mr. Trump has tapped a school-choice stalwart in Betsy DeVos to head the Education Department. In a joint address to Congress last week, he called for an education bill that would allow low-income families “to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”
On Friday, Mr. Trump and Mrs. DeVos visited a Catholic school in Orlando, Fla., where hundreds of low-income students attend with the help of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.
The Washington Post reported that Mr. Trump’s was the first visit to a Catholic school by a sitting president since Ronald Reagan in 1984 and “a clear signal that the Trump administration intends to push forward with expanding school choice as a key priority.”
That’s welcome news to millions of low-income minority parents nationwide who have long expressed overwhelming support for reforms that would free their children to matriculate at schools not controlled by teachers unions.
President Obama also claimed to support school choice, but he was referring only to those education options approved by the teachers unions that bankroll the Democratic Party. In practice, the Obama administration worked to shut down voucher programs in Washington and elsewhere and thus reduce choice for the disadvantaged.
For Mr. Trump, school choice means the parents get to decide—not the president or special-interest groups. There’s a reason why 56% of voters tell pollsters that President Trump is doing what he said he would do.
Now that the Senate has approved Ben Carson as housing secretary, the administration is poised to help poor communities in other ways. A primary function of the Housing and Urban Development Department is to oversee various rental-assistance programs for people in need. How these HUD initiatives are administered at the federal and local levels can have a major impact on the life outcomes of our most vulnerable citizens.
As someone who was raised in poverty before becoming a world-renowned brain surgeon, Mr. Carson knows that his background differs greatly from that of the typical Washington bureaucrat, let alone cabinet secretary. In some respects this means he will bring a different perspective to the task.
But it also means that he has his work cut out for him.
During his confirmation hearing, Mr. Carson said that in preparation for the new job he would go on a “listening tour” of the country. Instead of talking only to “the sage people of D.C.,” he quipped, “I want to hear from people with boots on the ground who are administering programs.” Imagine that.
Robert Woodson, who has been combating social pathology in low-income neighborhoods since the 1970s, told me that he likes Mr. Carson’s approach.
“Identify people who are residents in these communities and have the standing and reputation,” he advised. “Listen to the public-housing practitioners in the field who have demonstrated that they know how to promote self-sufficiency and independence on the part of residents and hold them accountable.”
Mr. Woodson cited David Northern, a housing official in Lake County, Ill., near Chicago, and Cynthia Wiggins, a public-housing activist in New Orleans, as examples of “creative” individuals who have a track record of “not simply helping poor people while they are poor, but also helping them leave poverty.”
HUD was founded as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program in 1965, when the federal government didn’t trust states to manage urban poverty programs and felt they needed direct funding and oversight from Washington.
The upshot, says Jason Turner, a former HUD official, is a system that continues to give local housing authorities little room to innovate. Congress could change that, and the Trump administration would be wise to throw its weight behind such an effort.
House Speaker Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way” proposal, released last year and informed by the congressman’s own travels to poor communities across the country, is a good place to start.
It calls for giving local jurisdictions that administer housing benefits the “ability to institute work requirements, educational training, and time limits beyond which benefits are discontinued to encourage non-working work-capable recipients to move toward jobs, careers and economic independence.”
The Beltway media continue to focus on delegitimizing Mr. Trump and his cabinet appointees, which explains headlines like this one in last week’s Washington Post: “Ben Carson, outsider with no government experience, confirmed to lead HUD.”
But education and housing are top concerns for struggling communities, and the president’s actions to date are an indication that he believes in helping people help themselves.