WASHINGTON — Some of the biggest losers in President Trump’s proposed budget are the rural communities that fueled his stunning White House victory.
Funding that keeps rural airports open, grants that help build rural water and sewer projects, and money for long-distance Amtrak lines that serve rural communities would all disappear under Trump’s budget blueprint released Thursday.
Trump also wants to kill the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps people, including seniors on fixed incomes and the working poor, to pay their heating bills. It’s a particularly prized resource in New England, with its brutal winters.
Also on the chopping block: funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission, which seeks to boost economic development in a region that strongly supported Trump. Into the dustbin, too, would go the US Chemical Safety Board, an agency that has open investigations in Mississippi, Florida, Texas, and Kansas, and last September wrapped up a probe of a West Virginia chemical spill that left more than 300,000 people without usable water for a time.
“The twisted irony here is that the people and the communities in this country who are going to be the hardest hit by Trump’s budget are the very rural and small town counties that Trump won. That’s true through and through and through this budget,” said Rebecca Vallas, managing director of the Poverty to Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank.
Overall, rural residents are more likely to need financial help from programs that Trump wants to put on the chopping block. The Center for American Progress estimates that one-third of families in the rural and small town counties that Trump won in November are living paycheck-to-paycheck — a level of economic distress that is 24 percent higher than in urban counties, Vallas said.
The Trump administration says it is targeting programs that it believes don’t work or are wasteful and its overriding concern is making sure taxpayers’ money is spent responsibly. For example, Trump’s budget proposal justifies the cut to the heating assistance program, saying it “is a lower-impact program and is unable to demonstrate strong performance outcomes.”
Administration officials defended the spending choices, saying the budget amounted to Trump’s campaign promises translated into numbers.
“Folks who voted for the president are getting exactly what they voted for,” White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Thursday morning.
“One of the questions we asked was can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia, or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs; the answer was no. We can ask them to pay for defense and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,” Mulvaney said.
But — much like the proposed health care legislation that would repeal and replace President Obama’s health care law — the new president’s budget document falls heavily on rural and lower income voters. Lawmakers were already objecting on Thursday, a sure sign that this president’s budget — like other presidents’ budget proposals— would be significantly changed on Capitol Hill.
Critics of Trump’s budget argued that ending funding for public broadcasting would hurt rural areas disproportionately, too: Public TV and radio stations in “affluent communities like New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco no doubt will survive with help from generous private donors. In the nation’s heartland however, this budget will force stations to eliminate vital local news, entertainment, and cultural programming,” said Michael Copps, a former Federal Communications Commission member and now an adviser to Common Cause, an advocacy group.
In fiscal 2016, funding for public broadcasting was $445 million.
Trump’s budget would also eliminate federal funding to legal aid programs, which advocates say could particularly hurt rural areas since it’s often hardest for low-income residents to get access to lawyers in these places. It would scrap the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant program, which funds numerous programs at community groups across the country, as well as eliminate funding for the independent agency known as NeighborWorks America, which helps, among other things, low-income families achieve stable homeownership.
In rural New England, the proposal to scrap the home heating program landed particularly hard.
Mere hours after the budget document went public Thursday, Robert Boschen, chief executive of Tri-County Community Action Program, based in Berlin, N.H., was on the phone with an aide to Senator Jeanne Shaheen. Boschen said the aide assured him the Democratic senator would be working on ensuring continued funding for heating.
Tri-County CAP is one of several organizations in New Hampshire that funnels these funds to needy households, including in largely rural areas of Grafton and Coos counties. The group distributed heating assistance to about 6,000 households from July 2015 through June 2016, which helped about 12,600 individuals. Among other features, the money helps seniors living on fixed incomes to stay in their homes, with money to spend for groceries and medicine, even when heating bills spike unexpectedly, and it helps stabilize families squeezed by other expenses, the group said.
Just last weekend, the group saw a jump in emergency applications – for situations when less than five days of fuel-help is needed — after temperatures dropped below zero for several days, the group said.
New Hampshire’s share of the heating assistance has slid $10 million since 2010, amid broader cuts to the program.
“We personally hear the struggles that clients go through, [and] could not imagine if it were not available,” said Sarah Wight, who oversees Tri-CAP’s fuel assistance program.
Congress spent a little more than $3.3 billion on the program in the fiscal year that ended in September, with more than 6 million households receiving assistance, according to figures shared by the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance and the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association.
More than 70 percent of those getting help were considered vulnerable – meaning they were elderly, disabled, or families with young children.
In Massachusetts, about 160,000 households received the heating assistance in fiscal 2016. About 32,000 got help in New Hampshire, and a similar number of households received such funds in Maine, where senior Senator Susan Collins, a Republican, has long sought more funds for the program.
“It’s needless and cruel to eliminate this lifeline for low-income families and seniors,” Senator Shaheen said. “Without home-heating assistance, tens of thousands of Granite Staters will have to choose between heating their homes and other necessities like food and medicine. It’s remarkable that candidate Trump never discussed leaving these Granite Staters out in the cold during his many campaign events in the state.”
While praising some aspects of the bill, Collins said she had “a number of serious problems with this proposed budget,” including the elimination of the block grant and home-heating programs.
Candace Sanborn, chief marketing officer for Community Concepts in Lewiston, Maine, worried about proposed block grant cuts. Her group —
“If those [dollars] are removed entirely in the way they are looking to strip those programs, then those things will simply go away,” Sanborn said.
The cuts targeting rural areas sparked some concern among Republican lawmakers Thursday.
West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito pushed back against the proposed elimination of the Appalachian Regional Commission. A Capito spokeswoman said the program “is essential to redeveloping economically distressed regions of West Virginia, especially the coal communities that have been devastated by years of regulatory overreach. The commission also plays an important role in Senator Capito’s efforts to expand critical broadband infrastructure.”