The true costs of the deep cuts in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would fall disproportionately on many of the poor and working class people in the Ohio Valley region who helped to elect him, according to lawmakers and policy analysts.
Deep cuts to subsidized health care, food aid, disability assistance, and addiction treatment services would have the biggest effect in parts of Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia with some of the nation’s greatest needs for these safety net programs.
Additionally, some federal agencies supporting new economic development in the communities hardest hit by the coal industry’s downturn would be sharply reduced or eliminated under the White House budget plan.
“This is really a cruel budget, a massive slashing of programs and investments in place for decades that provide a safety net,” said Jason Bailey, executive director for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a nonpartisan research group. That sentiment was echoed by anti-hunger and poverty groups throughout the region.
Trump’s budget includes a dramatic reduction for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. Trump would cut the program by $193 billion over 10 years, or about 25 percent, and shift some of the costs over to states.
Bailey said the region’s chronic poverty means it has a disproportionately high percentage of people using SNAP benefits.
“Most of the SNAP recipients live in rural parts of the state, a lot are children and the elderly and people with disabilities,” he said. “So we would be among the hardest hit if this sort of change went into effect.”
In eastern Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District, for example, some 75,000 households receive SNAP benefits. That’s the 6th highest dependency of the country’s 435 congressional districts. And about 34,000 of those households include children.
The White House budget would change the federal program so that some costs would be paid by the states. Bailey said this is problematic because it means that when demand for services is highest in times of economic downturns the states would also likely be strapped for revenue.
Additionally, language in the budget proposal indicates the administration would like to remove a waiver pertaining to work requirements for SNAP recipients.
“There are already work requirements in SNAP, people have to work,” Bailey explained. “There is an element of that program where the requirement is waived if there just aren’t jobs.”
That waiver pertains to areas with high unemployment, including parts of Kentucky and West Virginia. Removing the waiver could present an extra hurdle for people who need food assistance but live in places hard hit by changes in the economy.
“If they go down that route, it means that when jobs are lost, when coal jobs are shed, then that safety net is no longer there,” Bailey said. “And folks who lose employment will not have that to turn to.”
Health and Disability Cuts
Trump’s budget would cut $600 billion from Medicaid over a decade and another $72 billion from disability programs, including Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, which provide for workers with disabilities and their families.
The recent Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act made health insurance newly available for thousands of low income residents in the region.
West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy Director Ted Boettner said the proposed cuts to Medicaid and proposals to shift Medicaid responsibilities to the states would leave West Virginians especially vulnerable because of the state’s budget crisis.
“Deep cuts to the federal budget mean even more cuts here at the local level,” he said. “We have approximately 600,000 people in West Virginia that are on the state’s Medicaid program. That means hundreds of thousands of people will lose health care.”
Bailey said the high number of people engaged in physical labor in the region means more workers are exposed to injury and likely to become disabled over the course of their careers. In eastern Kentucky, where the economy has long been dominated by the coal industry, 55,000 people receive SSDI benefits. That’s the highest number of recipients in the country measured by Congressional district.
Addiction treatment experts in the region are also working to assess the impacts of the White House budget cuts proposed in that area.
The proposal would cut $73 million from treatment grants issued to states by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and another $74 million from public awareness programs put together by the agency.
The White House claims the budget provides $27.8 billion in “drug control efforts” in other funding, but the National Institute on Drug Abuse would lose funding as part of an overall $6 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health. NIDA is responsible for the federal government’s research on addiction and treatment.
Ending Economic Investments
The President’s budget would follow through on a proposal in the administration’s earlier “skinny” budget to defund many regional economic development programs, including the Appalachian Regional Commission.
“The Appalachian Regional Commission has played a pivotal role in creating infrastructure in West Virginia and helping to diversify our economy,” Boettner said. “But the Trump budget zeros it out completely, ends it forever.”
The ARC has invested over $3.8 billion in the Appalachian region since its creation during President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” much of it in the form of infrastructure improvements such as highways and water systems. Recently, the ARC has shifted focus to programs designed to help diversify the region’s economy in the wake of the collapsing coal industry.
Trump’s proposal to eliminate the ARC met bipartisan resistance from regional lawmakers. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said he was “not going to allow any cuts to the Appalachian Regional Commission.”
Not many members of Congress in the region seem impressed with Trump’s budget, regardless of political party.
West Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin said the budget lacks compassion. Kentucky Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth, who is ranking member of the House Budget Committee, called it “shockingly extreme.”
Many Republicans also expressed criticism. West Virginia’s Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said she would use her leadership role in the Senate Appropriations Committee to ensure adequate funding for programs that are important to the region. And West Virginia Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins said in a statement that while he appreciates the president’s aim to cut wasteful spending, this budget goes too far.
“The proposed cuts to our safety net programs, including Medicaid and SNAP, would hurt too many of our state’s most vulnerable citizens, and I cannot support this budget proposal,” he said.
Some Republicans gave the budget a positive spin in their comments, while expressing reservations about some proposed cuts.
Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman opposes cuts to programs such as the Great Lakes Initiative but called the budget “a starting point” and told CNBC he thought it might be a good idea to give states “flexibility” on aid programs.
Sen. McConnell registered his concerns about the ARC to local audiences in Kentucky but took to the Senate floor to praise other aspects of the budget such as defense and border security spending.
“It builds on progress made earlier this month on border security, calling for investing in more of the infrastructure and technology our law enforcement officers need,” he said.
The Trump budget plan, called “The New Foundation for American Greatness,” also suggests overhauling the tax code. Congress will work in the coming weeks to craft a federal budget taking the executive branch’s suggestions into consideration.