Last week, President Trump presented a budget blueprint that decimates programs critical to rural communities. This “skinny budget” was “dropped” (as they say in DC) while I was in Washington, DC, attending two events that showcased just how important these programs can be.
The first event was an Aspen Institute Summit on Inequality and Opportunity, which was designed to identify the structural challenges for marginalized people in the U.S. and highlight innovative (and inspiring) approaches to tackling these problems. The second was the America’s Rural Opportunity series where the Center, the Aspen Institute and the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities highlighted innovation and opportunity in rural places.
In both events, stories of entrepreneurial and community success highlighted individual initiative, grit and persistence in the face of innumerable obstacles. Speakers reflected on the non-linear path to success and the “instability factor”– the feeling of being always on the edge of not making it– and how, if not for unique partnerships, a little capital, a bit of support by others, they might have given up. And if they had given up, in one example, it would have meant that 20 new jobs would NOT have been created in a family-owned restaurant in rural Texas. The speakers shared inspiring stories and, when asked about the president’s budget, were clear in their dismay.
Many of the speakers noted that the tools they used to achieve success are targeted for outright elimination in the president’s budget. The president cites duplication of services and/or program ineffectiveness as a rationale for the cuts. While I am a strong believer in testing assumptions and shaking up the status quo, these justifications just don’t stand up for several programs that have delivered valuable results for the Northern Forest region, specifically:
- Northern Border Regional Commission. This regional federal funding entity shares a geography similar to the Center’s. We’ve long partnered with the commission and its leadership, most recently to update its strategic plan to direct federal resources to the areas of greatest need and opportunity. The commission has helped fund Modern Wood Heat development in New York and Wood Products Manufacturing in Maine and New York. These programs create quality jobs based on market demand, use local forest resources responsibly, and retain dollars in the local economy. The commission is a unique partnership among the federal government and the four Northern Forest states that leverages and delivers resources for community benefit.
- US Department of Agriculture, Rural Business Cooperative Services. In many cases, USDA Rural Development programs are the only federal tools available to assist rural businesses and communities. As an example, the Center is using a Rural Development Business Grant to help establish a wood pellet manufacturing plant in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont to provide local, renewable heating fuel for the region, displace fossil fuels and create jobs and demand for low-grade wood that needs new markets after the closure of pulp and paper mills across the region.
- US Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration. The Economic Development Administration recently helped to coordinate a federal agency team that brought both resources and technical assistance to Maine to aid stakeholders in assessing future opportunities in the forest industry. EDA’s approaches are increasingly regional, which is critical in the context of the Northern Forest and other rural areas.
Many more proposed cuts will disproportionately impact rural places, such as the elimination of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, the Low Income Heating Assistance Program, Community Development Block Grant program, and more.
Any program can be improved, but eliminating these entirely would be catastrophic for rural places. Private sector investment will fall off without federal participation. States and local communities will cut programs and services to people in need and people who present new opportunities. Businesses will reduce their investment in workforce development, training and capital improvements. Programs that alleviate rural poverty, create new jobs and support sound forest stewardship will cease.
Thankfully, support for maintaining these critical programs transcends party lines. The president’s proposal is just a start—the budget process will go on through the fall—and the Center and many others will be making the case for why these cuts don’t make sense. It would be better to focus our attention on addressing the persistent issues facing rural places than on fighting for the meager federal resources and tools already available—but we’re committed to defending these programs.
We have strong stories of real program impact that benefits people and communities, and national presence through the America’s Rural Opportunity series and other networks. We will need partnership and support from across the region to defend these important programs. Will you join us?