Big Bird himself is in danger, along with local arts communities across the country.
If Donald Trump's America First Tax Plan, announced this morning, were to pass in full, it would gut the programs that fund Sesame Street, the Crawley family, and arts organizations all over the country.
The proposed budget eliminates funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, which funds local art and theater communities in all 50 states, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (ILMS), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—which supports the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), home of Downton Abbey, Sesame Street, Arthur, and more.
Combined, all four independent cultural agencies combined amount to a mere 0.0015% of the Trump administration's 2018 military spending, which happens to be their justification for these cuts. The NEA and NEH each received $148 million in the 2017 federal budget, while the ILMS got $230 million, and CPB, $445 million, for a total of about a billion dollars to support local arts businesses and creative programming throughout the entire country. That sounds like a lot, but it's pocket change compared to the $639 billion proposed for defense spending. "A budget that puts #AmericaFirst must make safety its no. 1[sic] priority—without safety there can be no prosperity," Trump tweeted this morning.
In return for that 0.0015%, the American people lose funding for programming that primarily benefits low-income families. It's worth noting that other revenue streams for art organizations exist, through state and municipal governments and private donors. The New York City government, for example, appropriated $36.2 million in arts funding in 2012. As a result, cutting the the NEA will be most harmful to rural and impoverished neighborhoods. The organization reports that 40% the activities they support are in high-poverty neighborhoods, and 33% of their grants serve low-income audiences.
PBS CEO Paula Kerger adds, in a statement, "The cost of public broadcasting is small, only $1.35 per citizen per year, and the benefits are tangible: increasing school readiness for kids 2-8, support for teachers and homeschoolers, lifelong learning, public safety communications and civil discourse." She continues, "PBS and our nearly 350 member stations, along with our viewers, continue to remind Congress of our strong support among Republican and Democratic voters, in rural and urban areas across every region of the country. We have always had support from both parties in Congress, and will again make clear what the public receives in return for federal funding for public broadcasting."
The direct benefits of federal arts funding are only a part of the equation. Linda C. Smith, the artistic director Salt Lake City's Repertory Dance Theatre, recently explained to my colleague Kara Weisenstein that a lack of NEA funding can discourage other sources of revenue: "It sends a message that the arts aren't valuable, that they aren't worth nurturing or preserving, and that's a disastrous message in itself."
Republicans have had the NEA on the chopping block for 36 years. President Ronald Reagan came into office with plans to eliminate the agency in 1981, but after deliberation only trimmed 10% of its funding. Controversial artworks like Andres Serrano's Piss Christ have spurred public outcries against the organization, which Republicans including former New York Senator Al D'Amato, now a lobbyist, have used to argue for defunding the agency.
In 1996, when the NEA's legislation required renewal, Newt Gingrich led a crusade against the organization that resulted in a 40% cut between 1996 and 1997. In 1997, conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation wrote a report called, 10 Good Reasons to Defund the NEA, arguing among other things that the organization is "Welfare for Cultural Elitists." Despite constant attacks, the NEA has persisted, but Trump's tax plan could end the struggle. Here's a video from Killer Infographics explaining what these cuts will end:
In order for Trump's budget to pass, it still needs to be approved by the House of Representatives which might make changes, the Senate, which might make changes, and then, through a reconciliation process, the two governing bodies must agree. Both the House and Senate would then write bills to appropriate the money for the budget, then reconcile both of those bills. This process takes months, often pushing until the last moment before the budget must be implemented on October 1. In 2013, the process for approving the budget overflowed through October 17, resulting in a government shutdown that lasted over two weeks.
The "America First" tax plan will likely change throughout this period. Arts advocacy groups like the Arts Activism Fund have committed to fighting for the four cultural agencies during this period. "This proposal is a blueprint and will be considered by Congress, but like all proposals, Congress will be considering their own budget priorities—and likely without much regard to the [Trump] administration's request," the group points out in a statement. "But make no mistake, we are taking the Trump proposal seriously and are calling on you now to contact your representatives in Congress. Let them know that eliminating the NEA would be a devastating blow to the arts in America."
Other cuts include a 31% from the Environmental Protection Agency, 29% from the State Department, 21% from the Agriculture Department, 21% from the Labor Department, 18% from the Department of Health and Human Services, 16% from the Commerce Department, 14% from the Education Department, 13% from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 13% from the Transportation Department, 12% from the Interior Department, 6% from the Energy Department, 5% from the Small Business Administration, 4% from the Treasury Department, and 4% from the Justice Department, according to the Washington Post.
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