In rural Appalachia, people are so poor that there is a federal program dedicated to lifting them out of poverty. Through the Appalachian Regional Commission, the government pitches in on projects that these rural communities badly need but can’t quite afford — everything from fixing roads, to building computer labs, to training workers, to opening health clinics.
These efforts have become so widely admired that in recent years Congress launched, with bipartisan backing, sister agencies to help other rural regions stuck in generational cycles of poverty. Together the programs spend about $175 million each year bringing jobs and opportunities to places that long have felt left behind.
President Trump, who won rousing victories in these same parts of rural America, would eliminate that funding.
In his budget outline for 2018 unveiled Thursday, none of the rural development agencies — the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Delta Regional Authority, the Northern Border Regional Commission — would receive any money. In effect, it would eliminate these programs, which are completely subsidized by the federal government.
In the context of Trump’s other budget goals, the money at stake is paltry. What the rural development agencies spend in a year is a third of 1 percent of Trump’s proposed $54 billion bump in the military budget. The cost of Trump's increase in military spending could fund them for more than 300 years.
More than 37 million people would be affected in the 698 counties where the agencies work — in Appalachia, the Mississippi basin, and rural northern New England — places where the poverty rate is 33 percent higher than the national average. By proposing to zero out these programs, the president’s budget would eliminate a key effort to help to some of the nation’s poorest regions.
The projects aren't always trumpeted as government achievements. Many residents may not know that their local sewer renovation or their high school apprenticeship program was paid for out of federal funds, but states have come to rely on the money.
Much of the work isn't glamorous; it's focused on meeting basic needs such as clean water and access to medical care. Roads and broadband and other infrastructure projects are expensive in rural areas, which also are too poor and sparsely populated to afford the investments on their own. But such amenities are vital to attracting employers and growing small businesses.
Other efforts more directly combat rural unemployment by paying for training programs or helping people attend college. In Appalachia, for instance, the shrinking coal industry has created a job shortage, and the ARC has spent millions in recent years helping residents find new careers. In Maysville, Ky, it sponsored classes to teach people how to become drone operators. In Cedar Bluff, Va., it helped a community college offer classes in cybersecurity.
“We’re not just handing out federal money willy-nilly to the region,” said ARC spokeswoman Wendy Wasserman. “We work with our governors to make strategic investments. These projects are impactful and have results.” Wasserman declined to talk specifically about the president’s budget.
In 2015 alone, the ARC says it created or retained more than 23,000 jobs. The agency often uses its funds to get projects off the ground, attracting outside sponsors to help pay for the bulk of the work. According to its annual report to Congress, for every dollar it spends it brings in about $8 in private investment from companies and nonprofit organizations.
Many of these projects accomplish the same goals that Trump has emphasized: promoting manufacturing jobs and building the infrastructure that attracts businesses and supports local entrepreneurs.
“You cannot advocate for infrastructure development and economic security in rural America without also supporting the mechanisms, such as DRA, that make those projects a reality,” said Christopher Masingill, the federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, which sponsors projects in rural counties near the lower Mississippi River.
Another strength of these rural development agencies is that they can operate quickly. Projects are approved by a simple vote of the governing board, which includes the governors from the involved states and a federal representative. Masingill offered the example of Marthaville, La., a small town where the local water tank broke down shortly before the holidays in December.
“On Christmas Day, literally, they were not going to have access to running water,” Masingill said. “The governor reached out, and we were able to come together to provide them with some emergency funding within 24 hours.”
Despite Trump's proposal, these agencies are unlikely to be zeroed out next year. What the president has submitted is a wish list, not a mandate, and the power of the purse still rests with Congress. But Thursday's budget outline reveals the president's priorities, and rural development efforts are conspicuously absent from his vision.
During his campaign, Trump did promise to help blue-collar and rural Americans. The working class was a theme of his inaugural address, in which he described a landscape of “American carnage” and promised to do right by “struggling families all across our land.”
“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” he said.
But it seems the president plans to bring growth and jobs to rural America by other means. He has promised to reverse long-standing employment losses in manufacturing and coal, industries that once formed the backbone of these communities.
In November, voters in the 698 counties served by the rural development agencies seemed to think that Trump could deliver for them in ways that Hillary Clinton wouldn't. According to a Washington Post analysis, Trump beat Clinton by a cumulative margin of 26 percentage points in these areas.
The Trump administration claims that the budget makes good on the winning candidate's promises. On Thursday, Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said on MSNBC that “folks who voted for the president are getting exactly what they voted for.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Correction: A previous version of this story understated Donald Trump’s wins in the affected rural counties. He beat Clinton by 26 points.