The Trump Budget: Acting Right Won’t Protect You

Whenever Bill Cosby reenters the news cycle, two things come to mind. The first is The Cosby Show.  The second is his foray into respectability politics and the infamous “pound cake” speech (at least one book was written about it and it has its own Wikipedia page!).  The gist was that black people should just act right and then all will be well.

A version of this sentiment has been playing out in Washington, DC for decades. No matter how many times its pointed out the primary beneficiaries of government programs and services are white, they tend to be linked solely to black and brown people.  Offerings like welfare have been demonized as serving stereotypically lazy colored people who refuse to work.

But programs for those who “act right” (pursuing education and employment) have tended to take less heat in the discourse about government funding. Trump’s recently released budget, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s support of it, signal a shift.

Of course people of all races are affected, but black Americans are still trying to shake off the effects of Jim Crow and slavery. So it’s worth considering how a fully realized Trump budget would affect a fictional black person.  Vanessa is Bill Cosby approved.  She is low-income but has two parents, doesn’t speak in Ebonics, and just wants to get an education.

An Education Obstacle Course

Trump’s budget reduces the likelihood that Vanessa will attend a quality preschool. Her community used now eliminated Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) funds to pay for such services. She enrolls in K-12 public schools with reduced investments in teacher quality investments.   After school programs have disappeared.  Maybe Vanessa wants to go to college.  Preparation programs like Gear-up and Trio have been slashed.

Fortunately, many young people in difficult circumstances are extraordinarily determined. High school diploma in hand, Vanessa is ready to attend college.  She chooses a HBCU with an excellent STEM program and tuition that is more affordable than her other options.  When she steps onto the campus, she is unaware that administrators are under financial pressure in serving their disproportionately low-income student body.  Trump eliminated the Strengthening Institutions Fund.

Unafraid of hard work, Vanessa wants a work study job. But the federal program is now operating at half its previous budget.  Campus jobs are scarce.  Vanessa takes out more student loans but they are no longer subsidized.  Before Trump, the student loan debt of black graduates dwarfed that of their white peers.  Now Vanessa will owe even more than those high water numbers.

Just Trying to Work

Vanessa struggles to pay for school. She briefly considers dropping out.  She could enroll in a certificate program and work in technology until she earns enough money to pay for her 4-year-degree.  Trump cut workforce funds, making this option more difficult.

By the end of her first year of college, Vanessa has straight-A’s. She lands a major scholarship that allows her to stay in school.  When she walks across the stage to get that college diploma, she is feeling tremendously blessed.  Vanessa wants to give back to her community and help kids like her.  Volunteering with a national service program like Americorps seems like the best option.  But these programs, including the loan repayment assistance they offered to volunteers, are all gone.

Vanessa is undeterred and lands a job with a non-profit. The organization works with low-income children, feeding and supporting their interest in STEM.  But, in Trump’s America, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program has been eliminated.  Her debt makes her new job unaffordable.

Vanessa packs up her things and decides to try her luck in Silicon Valley. For a black woman, this opens up a whole other world of challenges—but that is a conversation best left for another day.

Political Realities

Realistically, it has never been smooth sailing for education and work programs. Investments have always been embarrassingly small.  They are typically less than 1 percent of GDP (a measure of the size of the American economy). And, according to the Coalition on Human Needs, these services have not been spared in recent budget slashing efforts.

Trump’s budget must still work its way through Congress and is unlikely to be implemented as is. But its existence, coupled with Paul Ryan’s support, suggest that the nation has entered a new era.  GOP leaders are giving up on the pretense that their policies support real life Vanessas and others who “act right”—you know like Bill Cosby and Donald Trump.

(Originally Posted on Extra Newsfeed on May 25, 2017)

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