Trump’s ‘draconian’ budget devastates rural communities already hanging by a thread

The White House wants to cut programs that are critical to sparsely populated areas.

Weeds grow around an old building and picket fence in Rocky Ford, Colo., on July 1, 2016. Otero County is a rural and increasingly impoverished part of southern Colorado. CREDIT: Brennan Linsley
Weeds grow around an old building and picket fence in Rocky Ford, Colo., on July 1, 2016. Otero County is a rural and increasingly impoverished part of southern Colorado. CREDIT: Brennan Linsley

President Donald Trump’s proposal for the federal budget, released on Thursday, targets a number of agencies and programs for elimination that benefit the rural poor. These 19 independent agencies provide, among other things: job training for low-income seniors, after-school programs for kids in high-poverty areas, and housing assistance to low-income families.

These cuts would be particularly harmful if they came along with the end of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which the House Republican health care reform proposal would eliminate. Health care is often more expensive in rural areas, but Trumpcare does not account for geographical price disparities.

Even without Medicaid cuts, however, advocates say that rural communities could be devastated by provisions of the Trump budget proposal.

“This budget is draconian when it come to the needs of rural places,” said Robert Mahaffey, executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust.

Workforce development

Providing people with the skills they need to get jobs has historically been a bipartisan issue, said Brent Parton, deputy director of the Center on Education and Skills with the Education Policy Program at New America. Parton said it’s “odd” that President Trump would want to cut the Department of Labor so steeply — a 21 percent cut in a $12 billion budget — given his campaign’s focus on helping Americans get jobs.

“You could see that as an area where Trump would see an opportunity for bipartisanship,” Parton said.

The proposed budget would eliminate programs like the Senior Community Service Employment Program, which provides job training for seniors, and make cuts to the programs funded through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). These programs benefit low-skill, low-income populations that have been left behind by generational poverty and changes in the economy.

Rural regions would feel the most pain from these cuts, Parton said, because it’s more difficult for these areas to make up for the loss in funding through public-private partnerships and other options that are available in urban areas.

“Distance, access, and child care are major barriers.”

“For those in a situation where they rely on federal funds — and they tend to be in rural areas — every penny counts,” Parton said. “Having those job centers, that is the lifeline there.”

These programs aren’t simply providing the job training people need to contribute to the economy. They’re also coordinating with other support services, to make sure people have the ability to access employment in the first place.

“People are spread out, and they might go to a community college, but maybe it’s hours away. Distance, access, and child care are major barriers,” Parton said. “[WIOA] coordinates these federal programs, so not only are people getting training but they’re getting supportive services, like transportation credits and child care, that gets them to that job in the first place.”

Education

By focusing on the expansion of vouchers through a $1.4 billion increase in school choice funding, the education budget harms rural communities, where vouchers can be particularly damaging to the public school system. In rural communities, it’s challenging to maintain a voucher system because there aren’t enough students to attend a variety of schools in the area. Rural public school staff already make tough choices due to low enrollment. A school choice system would likely exacerbate the problem, said Robert Mahaffey, executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust.

“This is deleterious for remote districts. The idea of a voucher system or choice options doesn’t take into account that a) they don’t exist and b) it takes away vital resources from public schools,” Mulhaney said.

Research has shown that vouchers are harmful to students’ learning at worst, and at best, are not any better than a public school students’ education. Many voucher programs targeted toward students with disabilities ask them to waive their rights under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

A recent Center for American Progress report found that voucher proposals are highly unlikely to work in nearly 9,000 sparse school districts where they have four or fewer schools where. Vouchers would also force rural school districts to make decisions about eliminating classes, cutting school activities, and reducing student supports, the report found.

Eliminating the 21rst Century Learning Program would be particularly devastating for rural students, Mulhaney said, because they have few enrichment programs outside of their public schools.

“That would decimate after school programs. Those enrichment opportunities are different in rural Texas,” Mulhaney said.

Housing and anti-poverty programs

The elimination of the Community Development Block Grant, the Community Services Block Grant, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and the Weatherization Assistance Program, would affect a lot of low-income people in rural areas who depend on community organizations that receive funding from these programs. The Community Development Block Grant is responsible for anti-poverty programs, which includes Meals on Wheels. Trump’s budget also cuts $200 million from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

These programs are vital for rural communities, many of which are experiencing a housing crisis. About 50 percent of low-income rural people have housing expenses that make up over half of their incomes, the lack of density makes it challenging to start affordable housing projects, and Low-Income Housing Tax Credits are more difficult to use in rural areas, according to a 2016 National Rural Housing Coalition report.

In some communities, there is only one small agency that provides low-income people with nutrition programs and improvements to housing.

“Thousands of people in this community will be affected.”

ThinkProgress reached out to the Cortland County Community Action Program (CAPCO), an upstate New York community action agency that helps low-income people by installing energy saving measures for lower income households, providing classes and tutoring to people trying to get their High School Equivalency diploma, and offering resources for nutrition support, among other services. CAPCO receives funding from some of the agencies that Trump has proposed eliminating, particularly the Community Services Block Grant.

Lindy Glennon, executive director of CAPCO, said the budget will “have a significantly damaging impact on low-income people.”

“It will significantly impact our weatherization assistance for hundreds of people living in substandard housing,” Glennon said. “It would do this much damage to so many people in this community. Thousands of people in this community will be affected.”

Glennon added that she was upset to see the programs considered for elimination “ineffective and duplicative.”

“That is absolutely not true. We are not duplicating services. They are not available anywhere else here,” she said.

Legal assistance

The Legal Services Corporation, which accounts for less than one-ten-thousandth of the federal budget, was also placed on the chopping block. LSC ensures that many low-income women and seniors get access to legal representation. In 2014, nearly 69 percent of the people assisted by LSC grantees were women and 16 percent were at least 60 years old, with 60 percent of cases involving family law and housing issues.

Don Saunders, vice-president of civil legal services at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, told the Guardian, “It was the federal support that created the capacity to expand out into rural areas. So you will see a great retrenchment in that regard without federal support … You will see greatly reduced resources available to make critical legal needs across the United States.”

In court proceedings involving evictions, mortgage foreclosures, debt collection cases, and child custody and support, more than 80 percent of the litigants did not have lawyers, according to the National Center for Access to Justice at the Cardozo Law School. The majority of judges say that self-representation hurts case outcomes. More self-representation among litigants can also slow down the court system.