One of my earliest posts on Bridging the Gap examined a measure of affluence in Upstate New York, finding that affluence largely clusters in towns with access to good jobs—especially suburban areas. The most recently available data shows the same patterns (darker blue more affluent, darker red less affluent).
I might have more to say about this map on a later day, but one takeaway in particular is relevant to this post. Geographically, the largest clusters of poverty in a region like Upstate New York—and indeed, across America—are in rural areas isolated from urban/suburban jobs or natural amenities like lakes or mountain resorts. With the decline of rural industries and labor-intensive agriculture, these areas have withered both economically and demographically. The people that remain are generally lucky enough to hold either white-collar positions (nurses, teachers, lawyers, etc.) or scarce remaining blue-collar jobs, or they’re supported by some kind of government funding. The latter can range from in-kind payments, to Medicaid/Medicare, to farm subsidies, to vocational education or (re)training.
Many programs and services intended to benefit rural populations, especially those who are older or poorly educated, are funded directly or indirectly by the federal government. For example, the US Department of Agriculture funds the Rural Housing Service, Rural Utilities Service, and Rural Business-Cooperative Service to “bring prosperity and opportunity to rural areas.”
Elsewhere, the federal government partners with states on the three rural development agencies. The most famous of these is the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), founded in 1965 to make long-term, sustainable investments in economic development within the Appalachia region. This region includes 14 counties in Western New York’s Southern Tier, 13 of which voted for President Trump—in many cases by large margins.
Now, let’s get to my bigger point.
Trump dominated in America’s rural areas due to a fairly complex set of cultural and economic factors (not to mention a healthy dose of desperation and gullibility). In speaking directly, if disingenuously, to rural populations who often feel neglected by policymakers, Trump offered what felt like a last hope to many voters. He never meant to keep his promises, though, and his proferred federal budget offers one of the biggest clues to the con.
(Granted, President Trump’s budget proposal to Congress takes a sizable ax to the usual Republican demons—cities, mass transit, the poor and minorities, public broadcasting and the arts, government-funded medical research, etc.)
This budget goes a step further, however, to aggressively target programs and funding streams that explicitly benefit the president’s rural voter base. For example, the budget would completely eliminate America’s three rural development agencies—including the ARC, covering counties where Trump garnered a stronger vote share than anywhere else in the country. Also on the chopping block: the Essential Air Service, which subsidizes scheduled commercial flights to small rural airports where they might not otherwise be economically feasible; and the Community Development Block Grant program, which (via states) funds such boondoggles as Meals on Wheels.
Meanwhile, the president continues to take frequent golf trips to his resort in Florida. At about $3.5 million a pop to taxpayers, he sure seems to have his priorities straight.
In many ways, Trump’s voters did something unforgivable. Back in November, I predicted that Trump would make things worse for the voters who had believed in his empty transformational promises.
Massive tax cuts for billionaires on top of pledges for huge infrastructure projects (some worthwhile, to be sure, but also the promise of a wall to keep out the only demographic actually moving to rural America these days)? Vindictive trade wars that may preserve an American job or two for another year, but that will also raise prices on cheaper imported goods—including those sold by big retailers disproportionately catering to small-town residents? … it’s an amazingly successful long-con by Donald Trump.
I’m still pissed at these voters who foolishly placed their petty hatreds higher than the interests of both marginalized populations and their own communities. But this—this vicious proposal to gut the lifeblood from the people who believed in something, no matter how misguided—is cynicism beyond anything I could have ever expected from an American politician. Nobody deserved this.