Donald Trump wasn’t my first choice for president. I was. But he was my second choice, and I’m proud that I supported him. In tackling the federal budget, he faces a debt that has doubled to $20 trillion in the past eight years. No doubt a chainsaw seems more appropriate to the task at hand than a carving knife, but I would urge my president and friend to hold back from one tiny area of the budget whose elimination would cost far more than it would save.
Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts might seem expendable — especially given how often celebrity artists insult and even threaten the president. But such hateful high-dollar Hollywood and music-industry stars don’t receive anything from the NEA, and they shouldn’t. Not because of their insufferable political whining, but because they get rich selling their talents to the highest bidder in the private sector. I have zero interest in spending a dime of tax money to prop up those who hate the president and the tens of millions who elected him.
I do care greatly about the real recipients of endowment funds: the kids in poverty for whom NEA programs may be their only chance to learn to play an instrument, test-drive their God-given creativity and develop a passion for those things that civilize and humanize us all. They’re the reason we should stop and recognize that this line item accounting for just 0.004 percent of the federal budget is not what’s breaking the bank.
Participation in the arts leads to higher grade-point averages and SAT scores, as well as improvements in math skills and spatial reasoning. Do we want students who are less likely to drop out of school and more likely to have academic success, particularly in math and science? Music and art deliver, especially for students likely to get lost in an education assembly line that can be more Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” than about creative thinking and problem solving. Creativity finds cures for diseases, creates companies such as Apple and Microsoft and, above all, makes our culture more livable.
Many children get their only access to music and the arts via grants made by the NEA — 40 percent of which go to high-poverty neighborhoods, while 36 percent reach underserved people, such as veterans and those with disabilities. In fiscal 2016, NEA grants went to nearly 16,000 communities, in every congressional district in the country.
But if the decision is to be made on purely economic grounds, consider the case laid out by advocates Earle I. Mack, Randall Bourscheidt and Robert L. Lynch in a recent op-ed in the Hill: The arts are a $730 billion industry, representing 4.2 percent of our gross domestic product — more than transportation, tourism and agriculture. The nonprofit side of the arts alone generates $135 billion in economic activity, supporting 4.1 million jobs. President Trump rightfully wants to end the U.S. trade imbalance, but the American arts generated a $30 billion trade surplus in 2014, on the strength of $60 billion in exports of various arts goods.
In the past, the NEA largely subsidized individual artists, which essentially placed the government in the role of sponsor of some artists and censor of others. Thanks to reform in the 1990s, however, 40 percent of NEA funds are now channeled directly to states, to be matched and distributed, with the rest going directly to communities, arts councils, arts organizations and select individuals. This has empowered localities to offer real participation to those who otherwise would have no avenue to music or the arts.
I truly want the government to stop wasting my tax money. I want it to stop funding things that don’t work and things that get funded only because they are some congressman’s pet project or have a powerful lobby behind them. To some, it may seem as though the $147.9 million allocated to the NEA in fiscal 2016 is money to be saved. But to someone such as me — for whom an early interest in music and the arts became a lifeline to an education and academic success — this money is not expendable, extracurricular or extraneous. It is essential.
If it seems unusual that a conservative Republican would advocate for music and the arts, don’t be so surprised. The largest increase in arts funding ever came under President Richard Nixon, and when budget hawks thought about cutting the minuscule funding of the NEA in the 1980s, it was no less than President Ronald Reagan who stepped in to make sure those in our poorest neighborhoods continued to have access to this road to academic success and meaningful way to express their creative gifts.
I’m for cutting waste and killing worthless programs. I’m not for cutting and killing the hope and help that come from creativity.
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This op-ed originally ran in the Washington Post.