Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Having already promised enormous tax cuts that would accrue disproportionately to the rich, Donald Trump’s budget completes the largest upward redistribution of resources in American history by proposing to slash support for the poor. Of course, Trump and his supporters have a defense for these positions. The tax cuts for the rich will promote growth, they say, while the vast array of spending on the poor is all ineffective anyway. So a Trump supporter might insist that his budget does not demonstrate a conscious desire to transfer resources from the poor to the rich, but merely different beliefs about which programs work and which don’t.
But there turns out to be a simple and clear way to test the morality of Trump’s budget from Trump’s own perspective. That test is to consider how Trump funds programs that Donald Trump deems vital to the poor.
Obviously, Medicaid is one example of Trump’s budget cutting a program Trump promised not to cut. (Budget Director Mick Mulvaney absurdly explained away this reversal by insisting that Trump’s endorsement of the Republican health-care plan rendered his promise to spare Medicaid moot: “I think once the president said, I support the American Health Care Act, part of that was Medicaid reform.” Then, having cut the Medicaid expansion in Obamacare, Mulvaney went ahead and cut another $600 billion from Medicaid on top of that.) But there is another example of a program for poor people close to the heart of Trump and his party: funding for education vouchers.
Last September, Trump gave a speech in Cleveland committing his administration to a revolutionary program of school choice. In that speech, Trump declared the promotion of school choice to be his highest domestic policy. “There is no failed policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly,” he said. “The Democratic Party has trapped millions of African-American and Hispanic youth in failing government schools that deny them the opportunity to join the ladder of American success.”
This was not merely a technical matter for Trump. It was the centerpiece of his claim to have the best interests of the entire country at heart:
Too many Americans living in our inner cities have not been included in the American Dream. We are one nation, and when any part of our country hurts – our whole country hurts. My goal as president will be to ensure that every child in this nation – African-American, Hispanic-American, all Americans – will be placed on the ladder of success: a great education, and a great job. In order to help our children succeed, our first duty is to ensure that every kid in America can grow up in a safe community. You can’t have prosperity without security. This is the new civil rights agenda of our time.
News coverage presented this commitment as the bedrock of Trump’s appeal, such as it was, to the minorities who had otherwise served as targets and foils in his speeches. Trump promised to deliver $20 billion a year in federal funding to turn his vision into reality. It was, he said, a matter of priorities: “Our government spends more than enough money to easily pay for this initiative with billions and billions of dollars to be left over. It is simply a matter of putting students first, not the education bureaucracy.”
Earlier this week, reports leaked describing Trump’s education budget. Rather than the promised $20 billion a year, his plan reportedly provides $750 million a year, which is 96.25 percent less than promised. The school-choice funding is such an insignificant rounding error, it does not even appear in Trump’s budget.
To be perfectly clear, Trump’s ideas about school choice are not what I think matters to low-income families. Indeed, the evidence shows that, while public-school charters on the whole produce better outcomes for urban students, private-school vouchers produce worse outcomes. But Trump believes, despite this evidence, that private-school vouchers hold the key to giving poor minority children a better future. And Trump also believes that there is easily enough money to change this if Washington cares enough to make room for those resources. What Trump’s budget proves is that Trump does not actually care about those families or their future.