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Carson wants poor to pay more rent, work for assistance

Ben Carson — who often refers to his own up-from-nothing life story as a parable for the poor and said last year that poverty is “a state of mind.” | Win McNamee/Getty Images

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HUD Secretary Ben Carson on Wednesday unveiled a major overhaul of the rental-housing system, proposing to increase the share of rent that low-income households must pay without assistance and allow public housing authorities to impose work requirements.

The proposal reshaping the way HUD helps 4.5 million people meet their rent is part of a broader Trump administration push to link anti-poverty programs to employment.

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Carson — who often refers to his own up-from-nothing life story as a parable for the poor and said last year that poverty is “a state of mind” — has long called on HUD to focus on helping people get off assistance, rather than expanding the benefits it provides.

The current system, Carson said on a conference call with reporters, creates “perverse incentives, including discouraging these families from earning more income and becoming self-sufficient.”

Rental assistance recipients currently spend about 30 percent of their adjusted income on housing, with subsidies picking up the rest. Under the proposal HUD is sending to Congress, recipients would have to contribute 35 percent of their gross income or 35 percent of their income from working 15 hours a week at the federal minimum wage.

Public housing agencies — and owners, in the case of project-based assistance — would be able to establish minimum work requirements for recipients, excluding people over the age of 65 and the disabled.

Meanwhile, tenants’ incomes would be verified less frequently — once every three years, instead of annually — to “encourage renters to increase their income without adversely impacting assistance for up to three years,” Carson said.

Three rental assistance programs comprise about 80 percent of total HUD appropriations: Section 8 tenant-based rental assistance, including the Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers; Section 8 project-based rental assistance; and public housing.

As rent costs continue to rise, more and more of HUD’s budget is eaten up assisting the same number of families — one of the reasons the administration has given for overhauling rental assistance.

“Every year, it takes more money, millions of dollars more, to serve the same number of households,” Carson said on the call. “It’s widely accepted that only 1 in 4 families who need and actually qualify for assistance [actually receive it] …It’s clear that from a budget perspective and from a human point of view, the current system is unsustainable.”

A 2013 study by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that only 24 percent of eligible households receive assistance.

The overhaul, a joint project with the White House budget office, is the latest in a series of Trump administration moves to rein in anti-poverty programs.

President Donald Trump this month signed an executive order directing federal agencies to “do everything within [their] authority to empower individuals by providing opportunities for work, including by investing in federal programs that are effective at moving people into the workforce and out of poverty.”

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, meanwhile, this year started allowing states to mandate employment for certain Medicaid recipients, and House Republicans included a food stamp work requirement in a package of proposals for the 2018 farm bill this month.

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