As President Trump was busy underwhelming or shoving European leaders this week, his budget was released back in DC in his absence. Normally it would be shocking that such an important political statement would be delivered without the President on hand, except when you see how his presence has generally been a disaster in other policy discussions.
A somewhat more cynical take would consider this distance an intentional move given how politically unpopular this budget was bound to be. However, there is no way distance can hide how much of a betrayal this budget is to the President’s campaign pledges and how terrible a budget it is on its own merits.
There are three big takeaways from the budget process before we get into how bad it would be for NYC.
First, it would be a huge wealth-transfer and massive realignment of priorities. The social safety net would be severely reduced (or altogether erased in some cases) while tax cuts would give billions back to the wealthiest Americans. Funding for research into things like cancer and climate change, programs for economic development and housing assistance, and aid programs for students and the young poor would all be radically cut, robbing the country of future investment. All in the name of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
Second, it is based on 3% annual growth, which no one thinks is possible (most predict about 1.8%) and seemingly includes a basic math error that double counts a trillion dollars in revenue. This isn’t even voodoo economics, it’s garbage economics. Even many Republicans are shocked by the brazen dishonesty of this budget and its defense by members of the administration. It can’t be stressed enough that this budget does not make any sense on its merits. That is unacceptably irresponsible.
Finally, partly because of the first two reasons, this budget will never get passed. That's true of most President's budgets anyway, but this one is wildly unpopular even with many Republicans. That’s not to say many conservative Republicans oppose these types of cuts – they do support them. This budget is the logical outcome of much of the Republican rhetoric of the last 15 years. It’s just wildly unpopular with most Americans, so Republicans don’t want to be that obvious about it. And, as many Republicans have already found out with the ACHA vote, they don’t want to go back to their districts to face the ire of constituents over dramatic cuts to popular programs.
Just because this budget won’t pass doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly dangerous. It sets the political debate and will make incredibly bad final decisions look better in comparison. The danger is the basic logic of this budget, and of the general approach Republicans have taken, which is to get the federal government out of the way as much as possible. The defense of this argument lies with putting responsibility back with the states.
This would be a valid argument if there were any indication that states could make up the differences in funding. They can’t. There is simply no way for even the wealthiest states to provide the types of services that people need in our modern economy. Whether Republicans genuinely believe that states can do this or disingenuously know that they can’t is up for debate.
In any case, passing the buck to states won’t solve the problems facing Americans. There is still systemic economic insecurity for a vast number of Americans, which isn’t go away no matter who has the buck. This budget will only make that insecurity worse.
We can look at NYC as a good example. Under the Trump Budget, the city would see over $850 million in cuts:
- $200m from the public housing capital fund that supports NYCHA
- $165m of direct funding to NYCHA
- $68m for senior centers, domestic violence services
- $48m for rental assistance
- $23m for home heating assistance
- $12m for affordable housing for low-income families
Though the State of New York doesn’t rely on the federal government that much for funding, NYC does, especially around housing assistance. If these cuts passed, how much could we expect the state to cover the difference to keep these services running? Setting aside the political beef between Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, there just isn’t that kind of money laying around in Albany.
This would mean the poor in NYC would suffer - the old, the young, the sick, the disabled, and the abused. They would take the brunt of these budget cuts and there’s no clear alternative help on the horizon for them.
Sadly, we would expect a Republican-driven budget to be harsh on the urban poor. They aren’t in a position to punish Republican leaders. But what is truly shocking about this budget is how much it also punishes the rural poor, many of which backed President Trump and other Republican candidates.
Republicans have won over rural white voters without offering them any real solutions to their economic problems. President Trump offered a more populist (and racially tinged) message promising to do so during his campaign, but has largely abandoned that rhetoric for more traditional Republican policies that favor the wealthy.
That’s not to say Democrats have presented any real solutions for the urban or rural poor, either. As some of the recent Congressional special elections have shown, the Republican message might be unpopular (with or without the President’s unpopularity weighing in) but Democrats haven’t won anything. It’s not clear what the Democrats are offering as a real solution to President Trump or the Republican agenda, as unpopular as they are.
Both parties have failed to offer real solutions to the underlying economic struggles most Americans are experiencing. The Trump Budget is a monstrous document based on brazen cruelty and breathtaking shortsightedness. But it’s not clear that a Clinton Budget would have offered bold solutions to our problems.
That’s because the basic logic pushed by Republicans for the last 30 years – deregulation, tax cuts, and global trade - has so thoroughly penetrated our politics that Democrats have never articulated a real alternative.
That alternative is obvious – we need more federal intervention in domestic policy. 30 years of neoliberal economic policy has hallowed out the middle-class, empowered stateless corporations and individuals, and undermined the civic health of our society. One outcrop of this is the affordable housing crisis, which I have covered extensively in this blog. States can’t solve the housing crisis, or any of these problems. Cities, even ones as big and prosperous as New York City, can't solve these problems. Tax cuts at the federal level certainly can’t solve these problems. An activist federal government can and must.
For now, we’re left to continue to fight losing battles over budgets like President Trump’s. We’ll keep under-investing in housing, infrastructure, and our people. We’ll keep eroding our civil society and our future prospects. Until this fever breaks, or until Democrats or someone else articulates a bold alternative, the premise of this debate will guarantee a continuation of garbage economics, garbage politics, and garbage leadership.