Donald Trump has vowed to cut the federal budget by $10.5 trillion over 10 years, eliminating approximately all of the federal government’s discretionary spending. One of the few specifics of his proposal involves eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), along with The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the privatization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The NEA budget of $148 million accounts for only 0.003 percent of the federal budget, a slice of the pie chart so small, it only reads as a thin line, not even a slice.
Even cutting all three programs would only get the Trump administration to 0.074 percent of the way to the annual amount that it would take to achieve their ultimate goal of $10.5 trillion over 10 years.
Ironically, reports have emerged that the cost of providing security for President Trump’s residence in New York City, where his wife and son will reside until the end of the school year, is projected to cost taxpayers $1 million a day. That is roughly twice the annual budget of the NEA.
As P.T. Barnum said, “Money is good for nothing unless you know the value of it by experience.”
Value is the operative word. How, as a nation, we choose to value one type of spending over another is at the core of our country’s current divide.
When it comes to federal spending, it’s clear that the Trump administration values spending approximately $100 million on one F-35A fighter jet, compared to $148 million on all the arts programs in the United States for a whole year.
The elimination of the NEA, an independent agency of the federal government created by an act of congress in 1965, would impact museums, music programs, community theaters and revitalization programs in rural areas that otherwise have little to no avenues for creative expression as a means for social bonding.
To be sure, the NEA has been a target for conservatives since 1980, when Ronald Reagan proposed eliminating it. That was until Charlton Heston, among others, convinced Reagan of “the needs involved and the benefits of past assistance.”
In 1996, Congress slashed the NEA budget because of the outcry from groups like the American Family Association, which railed against taxpayer dollars going to controversial artists like Robert Mapplethorpe.
But what most Americans do not know is the broad value NEA funding extends to American families in some of the most underserved rural communities in the United States.
The NEA provides opportunities in otherwise isolated places, such as the Mississippi Delta, and partners with a variety of organizations to revitalize small Rust Belt communities devastated by plant closures.
The NEA is the only source of funding for folk art, oral history and arts education programs that preserve the traditions, history and values of otherwise neglected rural communities in all 50 states.
Private, corporate or foundation funding sources are unlikely to invest in rural programs, where impact and visibility may not equal the return on their investment, and therefore provide less of an incentive to fund rural organizations.
State arts agencies, which receive a significant percentage of their budget from the NEA and are far more aware of the significance of local organizations, would be in less of a position to take up the slack of funding.
Add to all of this the consequences of the Trump administration’s tax reform plan. One aspect of the plan would cap itemized deductions for a single person at $100,000, or $200,000 for couples. That could portend a perfect storm of funding loss for nonprofit organizations across the country, but especially in rural communities.
Individual giving — which is the bulk of nonprofit funding, with wealthy individuals often giving millions of dollars to capital campaigns and endowments for hospitals, universities and religious organizations — may be less motivated to go beyond the proposed cap.
The National Endowment for the Arts safeguards the inclusion of rural America in the social bonding that occurs through the arts. The arts are the conduit for cultural expression, and depriving communities of that right ironically disenfranchises many of the parts of our nation that drove Trump’s election.