Despite the National Endowment for the Arts’ vital role in the US economy, in February, Trump announced that his proposed 2018 budget would eliminate the agency.
While the NEA has been on the target list for the right wing for ages, with so much else at stake, it’s hard to imagine that the left wing will take this on as a priority in its resistance efforts.
The final budget proposal is promised to be out within weeks, which leads us to ask, what would life be like without the NEA?
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Fifty years ago, Congress voted to authorize the National Endowment for the Arts based, in part, on a notion that a great US followed from an enlightened and unfettered citizenry. The authorizing legislation observed that: “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster … access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.”
Legislators and the president scarcely could have imagined how successful the Endowment would become, especially once President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration decided to prioritize states’ autonomy in using the federal funds. Among the NEA’s first orders of business in 1965 was to quickly return a significant portion of its allocation back to the states, effectively seeding local and regional economies across the country.
That practice continues. In 2017, the NEA has plans to send $41.2 million to state agencies. Those funds will be matched with another $360 million in state appropriations. The rough total of $400 million — 25 percent of which is specifically targeted for the rural US — will return more than $704.2 billion to the nation’s economy. That last figure is roughly 4.23 percent of the GDP. As the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies notes, today, the arts “generate more [dollars] than construction ($619.8 billion) or transportation and warehousing ($483.5 billion).”
This tremendous return on investment should be enough evidence to argue that the NEA is essential to the country’s future economic health, but there’s also another positive return.
In 2015, NEA funding drew an audience of 33 million individuals to “30,000 concerts, readings and performances and 5,000 visual and media arts exhibitions.” Programs, such as Blue Star Museums, offer free admission to the families of active-duty military personnel. The NEA’s Our Town program leverages public and private partnerships to contribute to community planning and development — making US cities and towns more vibrant places to live. In other words, the Endowment has its finger on the pulse of issues close to America’s heart — jobs, housing, security, health, and education.
The art programs that the NEA sponsors have a huge impact on education. Research on middle and high school students has found that students who engage in the arts generally attain high grades, do better on standardized tests and, most importantly, stay in school.
There are those in government arguing that the last eight years of profligate spending demand a new fiscal austerity. Though the NEA benefits cost the average taxpayer less than 46 cents a year, compared to the $1 million a day it takes to secure Donald Trump’s presidential estate in New York City, it will cost us all, economically, should we choose to let the shutdown of the agency go unchallenged.
Previous attempts to abolish the NEA completely have bombed at the state level. In the late 1930s, the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) offered employment relief for those in live performance and functioned as part of the larger New Deal Works Progress Administration. Some Congress members were worried that FTP funds were going to nefarious political purposes. When Congress voted to defund, many who voted against the FTP did not realize what it was they were voting to end. FTP director Hallie Flanagan recalled,
A telephone call came in from a Congressman. I expected condolence but that was not the intent. He wanted to talk about the theatre project in his state. “But Congressman, there is no Federal Theatre. You voted it out of existence.” A stunned silence and then, “What?” “It was abolished on June 30 by Act of Congress.” Again silence. Then a shocked and heavy voice said, “Was that the Federal Theatre?'”
If we lose the NEA, we lose a program that not only makes our lives more vibrant and meaningful through the arts but that also boosts economies, offers educational opportunities and assuages poverty in communities in every state.