Rural voters backed Donald Trump in the 2016 election for many reasons.
For some, it was ideological. Rural areas have become more politically conservative, home to more people who believe in hands-off government and stricter regulation on social issues.
Other voters saw the progressive social changes of the past ten years and felt overwhelmed.
For more, however, it was the sense that economic trends in rural places were so bad that only a dramatic shake-up could make things better. Trump, for his many indiscretions, despite being a big city oligarch, spoke the hopes for recovery that many rural people hold. He would open doors and strip away red tape.
We now see Trump’s plans in action. In recent weeks President Trump released his federal budget recommendations. This came after releasing his long-awaited health care reform bill, the so-called “repeal and replace” of former President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
That health care plan rang hollow to members of both parties. Facing massive disapproval in opinion polls, the bill died before getting a House vote last week. We could dwell on Trump’s health care bill’s problems. After all, its savings would have come from making private health insurance disproportionately more difficult for working class rural Americans to keep. But Trump’s budget is equally troubling.
While increasing spending on the military and homeland security by billions, Trump outlined the reduction or elimination of most federal programs related to poverty, housing, conservation, environmental protection, or the arts. The Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program, in particular, seems a particularly unusual place for a “rural issues” president to slash.
Trump would eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which backs public radio and TV stations. The most crushing blow here would be to small, rural public radio and TV stations. In rural America, local PBS stations provide most educational and children’s programming used in the home. Full disclosure, I produce programs for Northern Community Radio (91.7 KAXE), which is partially funded by the CPB. Northern Community Radio is one of the region’s few radio organizations investing in local news reporting and cultural programming.
The president also seeks to zero out the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA is one of the major funders of art outside the big cities. Traveling plays and musical groups often rely on this money. Without funding, rural people have to drive to metro areas to experience art, and for many that’s as good as not having it at all.
Huge cuts to federal work-study programs for college students. Scientific research. Home heating assistance. Legal Aid. Meals on Wheels.
How is Meals on Wheels is bad for America? The federal dollars encourage state and local funds to provide nutrition and safety check-ins for longtime taxpayers. These are people who, by now, should have earned the respect of their government.
The local impact could be huge. Trump’s proposal to eliminate the Essential Air Service program would devastate regional airports, including the Range Regional Airport here in Hibbing. We would be more isolated, with fewer options to attract new businesses, investors, and tourists.
Many earnestly voted for President Trump hoping for relief for rural people and rural places ignored or even maligned by politicians of both parties. Hibbing, for instance, voted Republican in the presidential race for the first time since 1928.
In this regard, rural voters find broken promises in the black and white of our new president’s budget. Billions in tax cuts pour into the pockets of the already wealthy, while everyone else is told to wait. Just wait, until the rich people decide to make your life better. It might take awhile. Just keep voting how they tell you to, and don’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise.
A hundred years ago Mesabi Range immigrant laborers figured out this scam not long after they got off the train at the North Hibbing depot.
I’m not here to suggest that the Democrats have their act figured out either. The lack of attention to the plight of rural America is bipartisan. Certainly, the majorities of people in this country — located in cities and suburbs — could better understand how our food, our goods, our recreation, and our construction materials are made with the labor and resources of rural areas.
Further, I recognize that some believe that the federal government should be nothing more than a colossal military to fight endless war and overactive judicial system to process an inherently criminal population. I don’t understand this way of thinking, though I look forward to reading such totalitarian fever dreams in the comments.
Nevertheless, if you’re rural or a member of the working poor (statistically, that describes at most of the Mesabi Iron Range) Trump’s budget is a betrayal. This budget attacks rural America. Further, it assumes the wicked philosophy that poverty may only be blamed on the impoverished.
We must be relentless in arguing for what we value in our rural communities. We must respond to the challenges of globalization and automation with real policies for economic diversification, sustainable towns and mercy for the poor and elderly.
To do that, we must reject this budget, and demand better.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 2 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.