REUTERS/Edmund D. Fountain

White House budget priorities could put Americans in harm’s way

Taxpayers want to see their money invested in measures that keep communities safe. But pushes from the current administration may have the opposite effect.

As Congress continues to wrangle with the federal budget, it’s a good time to remind all federal leaders that our nation’s defense doesn’t just come from the Pentagon. In fact, many of the President’s proposals would actually undermine our safety by defunding programs that make our societies resilient.

As we have seen time and again – whether after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, or Hurricane Sandy – one of the most critical factors that determines lives lost, damage done, and hardship inflicted is the strength of a community before disaster strikes.

By stripping investments from institutions that develop and solidify social capital and community cohesion, we will erode our national security, ensuring that terrorists are more successful, natural disasters more destructive, and other unforeseen events more debilitating.

During Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ neighborhood isolation, poor transportation, lack of a robust middle class economy, substandard housing and lack of social capital contributed significantly to the catastrophe that ensued.

Amid the turmoil following 9/11, the strength of New York City’s infrastructure, public institutions, social services, and public spaces helped residents rally around a sense of shared ownership of their community. When a major shock disrupted the normal functioning of daily life, New York had the ingredients it needed to respond.

While Congress has pushed back on some of the President’s proposed projects and cuts, they must remain vigilant about his plans to strip billions from programs that shape cities’ collective identity and security.

He called on Congress to eliminate the Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG), the backbone of thousands of communities across the country, as part of a $6 billion cut to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. For over four decades, this program has funded affordable housing, improvements to public parks, and public services like Meals on Wheels to vulnerable populations. These initiatives have produced greater social cohesion, economic gains, neighborhood revitalization, and disaster relief.

Community Cohesion

One such CDBG project, the Lafitte Greenway in New Orleans, was developed in direct response to the conditions that exacerbated Hurricane Katrina’s destruction. The program links previously isolated neighborhoods, provides a new green public space, mitigates flooding, and enables new modes of mobility. It has catalyzed private real estate investments in the surrounding areas, providing the local economy a much-needed boost. These kinds of projects build meaningful resilience and make the city stronger. Through one investment, the city is reaping multiple benefits that far exceed the initial dollar amount.

President Trump has asked Congress to consider other priorities that raise additional alarms. His proposal cuts before- and after-school and summer programs, vital to the lives of so many students and working parents; defunds job training programs for seniors and disadvantaged youth; and eliminates community service programs.

Social cohesion would be undermined with the elimination of cultural institutions that help define our collective identity. The National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting all strengthen our communal development and social ties.

Threats to withhold federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities would only compound these consequences. Along with the chilling effects on community cooperation, these measures would directly cut funding to local law enforcement agencies, as well as from transportation and other infrastructure projects.

The administration's recent reversal of climate change initiatives would also strike a serious blow to our collective strength. Apart from the effects on the environment, and the threat that extreme weather already presents, the President’s Executive Order would impact programs that strengthen our communities on a day to day basis. Clean energy has actually driven job growth, as has wind power, reviving the energy sector in places traditionally tied to the fossil fuel economy, such as Texas.

Our security depends on these fundamental elements of resilience. Investment in the programs and places that foster them is critical to our future success. Robust public services programs, public parks, schools, libraries, community centers and the arts, provide more ammunition to undermine our enemies than even billions of more dollars in defense spending could. With each dollar removed from the systems that make communities strong, the less able we are to survive the next hurricane or terrorist attack.

Our nation and our world are increasingly urbanized. Eighty percent of Americans live in cities, and the number is only growing. It is where most of our communities will continue to grow together to ensure a vital future for us all - or where they will slowly disintegrate, eroding our ability to survive and thrive amid the challenges of the 21st century. A budget truly designed to protect us will reflect this reality.

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