It’s that time of year again. For Catholics, March is Lent, a time of commitment to sacrifice and good deeds. It’s also when we get the annual Lenten Appeal request to tithe in support of the Church’s ability to serve as God’s emissary on earth and help those most in need. In Washington DC, March is budget season. The time of year when the Administration unveils its spending priorities for the coming year and when Congress demonstrates where it will invest the trillions of dollars provided by American taxpayers.
This year, the disconnect between God’s priorities and Republican priorities could not be more clear, unless we focus only on the word sacrifice. The “skinny budget” released this morning by the Trump - Pence White House requires every community in America to sacrifice so that more is spent on the military and to build a wall. What are we sacrificing? Local jobs, local economic development, local safety and local stewardship. Trump’s budget especially requires sacrifice from those living in affordable housing, those on fixed incomes, those trying to get to work without a car, those who live in communities with environmental hazards, and those who work in community development, small scale manufacturing, or other areas of local, home-grown businesses.
While Trump loves to talk about his desire to invest in infrastructure on a massive scale, countless questions have emerged about how this would be paid for, who would benefit, and whether Congress has the desire or ability to actually move such a proposal. Trump is full of empty promises about the infrastructure jobs he will create in the future. Empty because today he is proposing to ELIMINATE THOUSANDS OF INFRASTRUCTURE-RELATED JOBS, including those employing people right now. Empty also in that it defunds many of the programs used by communities as matching funds to attract private capital, something Trump also says we need. Viewed by many as “Dead on Arrival,” the skinny budget is Trump’s first attempt to detail his campaign promises. So, if infrastructure investment is one of his big promises, how is that achieved through gutting funding for incredibly popular and effective construction programs?
The Trump budget guts funding to build new light rail and bus rapid transit, highways, bridge and trails, and would defund air service in rural communities. It proposes to eliminate funding programs that allow local towns, cities and developers to build much-needed new housing and community facilities, often through leveraging several times more in private investment.
Cutting federal domestic spending programs today, means that thousands of projects currently under development and ready for construction are either shelved or delayed so that they will cost taxpayers even more money if built in the future. As a recent study found looking at just one federal agency, HUD investments in 2015 directly supported 301,217 jobs and indirectly supported an additional 236,080 jobs. Yet, much of this spending is proposed for elimination by the Trump administration.
Trump’s proposed budget cuts come on top of six years of continual funding reductions by Congressional Republicans, many of whom have already noted there is little left to cut. In response, states and cities are getting more creative and desperate as they work to fund basic community needs like streets, housing, clinics, schools. Voters themselves have stepped forward to raise local taxes given federal absence and growing infrastructure needs. Yet, the proposed federal cuts mean further financial burdens for communities. For instance, last fall in Los Angeles over two-thirds of residents approved increased local funding to leverage federal transportation and housing resources for private investment. Under Trump’s proposal such leverage will vanish or become costlier.
Smaller communities, and those without LA’s booming economy, are left to fend for themselves under the Trump budget. Across the country, taxpayers will to have to pay even more in the form of increased user fees, tolls on more roads and bridges, and costly debt financing schemes. The disconnect between Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure hype and the $54 billion cuts announced today is stark. Frankly it makes any of his infrastructure promises disingenuous at best. These proposed cuts may ensure that America’s communities experience the “carnage” that Trump likes to fictionalize for the Trump budget misses reality entirely.
The fact is that America’s communities are stepping up and succeeding to solve 21st Century challenges, to address generations of disinvestment and social inequality, to experiment with emerging technologies and to test new partnerships with private investors and non-profit partners. Safe, thriving, inclusive communities are what make America great. They also contribute to national security and our economic superiority. Starving cities and towns, as the Trump budget would do, weakens us and slows economic growth.
Eliminating federal programs like the Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), Environmental Justice technical assistance, and rural water infrastructure loan program limits the ability of communities to solve their own problems. This is true for large cities and small towns. It’s true for affluent communities and low-income communities. I’ve worked with cities using CDBG funding to redevelop vacant land into active urban parks surrounded by new privately-developed housing and local businesses. I’ve supported communities in using EPA resources to identify the most toxic sites in their neighborhood for clean-up that literally saves children’s lives. I’ve witnessed in my Midwestern home town the difference that rural water programs have made to generate new private investment and create jobs, while restoring God's lakes and streams.
Yes, we need -- and luckily, we already have -- a strong military. Our military though also needs strong communities to live in, and to defend. Setting these up as a false choice is wrong for America. It’s wrong for our communities, and it runs so very counter to the Lenten season. As Pope Francis tweeted earlier this week, “Lent is the favorable season for renewing our encounter with Christ, living in his word, in the sacraments and in our neighbor.” My Lenten Appeal is for America’s communities; and, that the Trump administration will begin to recognize community leaders, local elected officials, planners, transportation professionals and entrepreneurs as partners and neighbors in keeping America great.
Postscript: The Brookings Institution published this great piece by Amy Liu and Nathan Arnosti on March 17 that reinforces, with more eloquence and data, many of the points raised in my blog. It's definitely worth a read!