The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s public broadcasting cut would hit rural Americans the hardest

A man carrying puppets of "Sesame Street" characters Kermit and Elmo holds a sign at the Capitol during the 2012 "Million Puppet March" in support of public broadcasting. (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

President Trump's budget director had a blunt explanation for why the administration wanted to eliminate federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting: It was inappropriate, he said, to ask working-class Americans — such as "a coal miner in West Virginia" — to pay for programs like the CPB.

"We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting," added Mick Mulvaney, head of the Office of Management and Budget.

But is Mulvaney's hypothetical coal miner really getting such a raw deal from the CPB?

On the cost side, according to The Washington Post's Fact-Checker look at some back-of-the-envelope numbers, a typical coal miner in Appalachia paid a few pennies a year for CPB funding, if anything at all.

And in exchange?

Critics have often caricatured the programs funded by the CPB as playthings of the "liberal elite," but CPB funding disproportionately flows to rural, far-flung areas of the country.

Precisely because of their far-flung nature, those areas — such as parts of Appalachia — often lack many broadcast options other than the ones CPB provides. CPB funding is "especially critical for those living in small towns and in rural and underserved areas," the organization's president, Patricia Harrison, said in a statement.

For instance, about 43 percent of entities receiving CPB support — 248 out of 575 — are classified as "rural." Only about 18 percent of Americans live in rural areas, so stations serving those Americans are more likely than urban stations to be funded by CPB, relative to overall population.

Even at the dollar level, rural stations receive a disproportionate share of CPB funding: Close to 30 percent of CPB's entire federal appropriation goes toward funding rural stations.

The CPB is one of a number of federal programs slated to lose all federal funding in Trump's budget, and it's part of a puzzling pattern: Trump has called for particularly deep cuts in programs and agencies that provide services to rural voters who overwhelmingly supported Trump.

In the case of CPB, studies have found that some of the programs it helps deliver to its audience, most famously "Sesame Street," provide great educational benefit and little cost.

One recent investigation found that "children who lived in areas with access to the Sesame Street broadcast were about 15 percent less likely to fall behind when they got to school than their counterparts who did not have broadcast access."

The gains were particularly large for children living in low-income areas — like West Virginia's coal country, for instance.

Beyond educational programming, public radio and TV stations perform vital functions in rural areas.

"Public stations send out AMBER alerts, the system that tracks missing children," wrote University of Texas journalism lecturer Kate Winkler Dawson this week. "They broadcast critical warnings about severe weather. Many stations in states like South Dakota and Alabama serve as Emergency Alert Service hubs, disseminating life-saving information."

Trump's budget -- just a request, and one that Congress will have the final say one -- positions those functions as a necessary sacrifice to fund a $54 billion military spending hike and a $2 billion down payment on the border wall that, during the campaign, he repeatedly promised would be paid for by Mexico.