The rural towns where Trump's budget will hit the hardest – yet they're still willing to trust him

Southern Oklahoma voted en masse for a presidential candidate who promised them the world. Now its less well-off residents are facing up to swingeing cuts in the services they rely most on

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The Independent US

At the Boys and Girls Club in this rural city in southern Oklahoma, the director is unsure how he will stay open if President Donald Trump’s proposed budget goes through, eliminating money for several staff positions.

Similar conversations are happening at the Oklahoma Shakespearean Festival’s after-school arts programme, which relies on National Endowment for the Arts grants that Trump wants to eliminate. And at the county senior centre, which already lost its state funding and could lose all or most of its federal funding, too. And at the Farm Service Centre, which supports 1,200 local producers and is staffed with employees whose positions were targeted in the budget.

In this town of 16,000 – located near the Texas border in Oklahoma’s Bryan County, where Trump won 76 per cent of the vote – excitement for Trump’s presidency has been dulled by confusion over an agenda that seems aimed at hurting their community more than helping it.

The President’s proposed budget would disproportionately harm the rural areas and small towns that were key to his unexpected win. Many red states like Oklahoma – where every single county went for Trump – are more reliant on the federal funds that Trump wants to cut than states that voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Durant has already undergone years of state budget cuts, as Oklahoma has been unable to balance its increasing costs with declines in the oil industry, tax cuts and generous corporate tax credits. That has made federal funds even more vital to the city, especially for programmes that serve the poor and working class.

“It’s very easy to look at a laundry list of things that exist and say, ’Cut, cut, cut, cut,’ and say, ‘Well, this is wasteful spending’ without really understanding the true impact,” said Durant city manager Tim Rundel, who grew up in poverty in northwest Arkansas. “The bottom line is a lot of our citizens depend on those programmes.”

Betty Harris, 77, gets choked up when she talks about her husband, who died in May, and her son, who died in February. Her two daughters live in Oklahoma City and visit once a month or so. There are two things that get her to leave her home: a quilting circle with friends and daily visits to the senior centre.

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Residents stand for the Pledge of Allegiance before lunch at the Robert T Davis Senior Centre in Durant

The centre offers lunch for two bucks, exercise classes, gospel singalongs, tax preparation help, monthly boxes of food for low-income seniors, a meal delivery programme and a staff that can patiently explain Medicare or how to operate a cellphone. If someone doesn’t show up, the others quickly figure out why.

“It’s the only bright spot,” said Harris, who used to work for AT&T. “It makes me get dressed and get out of the house.”

Harris voted for Barack Obama when he first ran in 2008 because she liked his promise of change. But he disappointed her in a number of ways, including being too sympathetic to Muslims. She voted for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 and Trump last year.

She likes the President’s promises to crack down on illegal immigration, which she thinks has hurt the job market, and to bully manufacturing plants into staying in the country. She said both of her daughters were out of work for months because they worked for companies that moved overseas.

Trump walks out of an executive-order signing ceremony without signing the executive orders

But Harris is upset by the President’s proposed budget, which would dramatically cut funding for the Robert T Davis Senior Centre, managed by the Bryan County Retired Senior Volunteer Programme. Harris said she gives each president 10 strikes before she withdraws her support.

“I have high hopes for Trump, but if he’s going to be cutting these kinds of programmes, that’s going to be one,” Harris said. “And we’ll see. I hope I don’t get up to 10, but I will give him one for that.”

Trump wants to eliminate the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, which provides the county volunteer programme with about $35,000 each year. This money goes to pay for supplemental insurance and mileage for volunteers who serve in the area, deliver meals to the county’s homebound and drive the elderly to medical appointments, including taking veterans to the closest VA medical centre, 100 miles away in Dallas. The centre also indirectly receives federal funds to pay for meals, which also could be cut.

The centre has already lost the $28,000 it used to receive each year in state funding, and United Way recently announced it would reduce its annual contribution from $10,000 to $7,500, said executive director Sheila Risner. She cut her salary, cut the hours of another employee and pared back some services, including reducing the number of trips to Dallas.

As lunch trays were cleared away one recent afternoon, a table of seniors debated the proposed cuts.

Bert Briedwell, a 74-year-old who is retired from an engineering consulting company and voted for Clinton, agrees with giving more funding to the military – but not at the expense of programmes such as this one.

“What would God say if you said, ‘I’m going to take all of this money away from the poor and give it to airplanes’?” said Briedwell, a member of the Choctaw Nation, which is headquartered in Durant. “We have enough of that already.”

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Maudie Anderson, 95, leads a bingo game at the senior centre

Clyde Glenn, 79, responded that there is a lot of waste in social programmes.

“If North Korea shoots a missile and it hits the United States and knocks out our power grid, then you’ll be saying, ‘How come nothing works no more?’ ” said Glenn, a Navy veteran who owns rental properties in the area and voted for Trump.

“Look at all of the missiles we got – you don’t think we can take on North Korea?” Briedwell fired back. “My God, Clyde.”

One of the women at the table sighed: “You got him going now.”

Jackie Garner, a bookkeeper at the senior centre who volunteered to reduce her hours so it wouldn’t have to cut even more services, jumped in to say that the Christian community should be doing more to care for those in need, as God instructed his followers – not the government.

“At my house, if we don’t have that money, we don’t have that money. We don’t go out and spend money that we don’t have,” said Garner, 57. “We try to find alternative ways to make the things that are important happen. I expect the government to do the same. It’s our tax dollars. We need to be good stewards.”

“I see what you’re saying, hon,” Briedwell said, “But don’t you agree with me? Why take it and give it to the military that’s the strongest military in the world?”

As the debate continued, Glenn shook his head and said: “It used to be that when somebody won a sports game, a politic game, whatever, the loser must be gracious and let it go... He won. So let’s accept that and let it go and see what he can do.”

A drive along Durant’s Main Street reveals the problems facing many small towns – problems that Trump promised to fix.

“This is our Main Street, going right through the heart of Durant, and you’re going to quickly see why some of our citizens are somewhat frustrated,” said Rundel, the city manager, as his pick-up truck rumbled over potholes that often extend through layers of patches to a historic brick road below.

Four workers are assigned to patch the city’s near-200 miles of road, which Rundel compares to applying a temporary bandage to a gaping wound. There’s just never enough money left in the annual $30m budget to tear up and replace Main Street and other main roadways. It would take at least $20m to update the roads, he said.

“We just don’t have the resources,” Rundel said.

It would cost another $10m to $20m to update the city’s generations-old water treatment and sewer systems, the life of which has been extended by city workers willing to come up with creative fixes and build their own parts. Trump’s budget promises “robust funding for critical drinking and wastewater infrastructure”, but also would eliminate a $498m grant and loan programme that helps rural communities that are smaller than Durant upgrade their water and wastewater systems.

Heading east on Main Street – past the “world’s largest peanut” stationed outside City Hall – takes you over railroad tracks and into a deeply impoverished neighbourhood. One in four Durant residents lives in poverty.

In 2014, President Obama designated the Durant-based Choctaw Nation as a “Promise Zone” and the recipient of a rush of federal funds that enabled an expansion of Head Start programmes for young children and internet access for more than 425 public housing residents. An eco-friendly steel mill is slated to open this autumn, providing as many as 300 new jobs, thanks to a New Markets Tax Credit of $21m that encourages building in areas with a high unemployment rate.

Durant is already home to a number of industrial plants – including a Big Lots distribution centre and a glass factory – and has been growing. But to continue to add all of the jobs Trump promised, Rundel said the city has to strengthen its strained infrastructure.

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An old brick road surface is exposed where asphalt has broken apart on Main Street

Trump promised that within 100 days of taking office he would introduce legislation to “spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over ten years”. He has yet to do so. And when his aides discuss infrastructure, they talk more about toll roads, pipelines and major airports than crumbling Main Streets.

John Czwartacki, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, pushed back at the idea that the budget hits rural areas especially hard.

“President Trump was elected to represent all Americans – rich and poor, rural and urban,” he said. “His administration and his budget prioritise American security and economic success, while at the same time recognising that we must be mindful of every tax dollar spent, given our nearly $20 trillion national debt.”

There is hope among many Trump supporters that the possible budget sacrifices will be worth it.

Rick Munholland, 64, owns a tyre shop near the train tracks on Main Street and said customers often ask to purchase tyres made in the United States, which are difficult to find. He wants to see more jobs in the area, fewer undocumented immigrants and a reduction in his monthly health-insurance premiums, as it costs $2,800 a month for a small-business plan that covers him, his wife and one employee.

“Working people like me can’t afford it. Now, if you’re low-income, they can get it for nothing – but the low-income gets taken care of regardless,” Munholland said. “God bless America, but it has gone to the dogs.”

When Crystal Tate was in middle school, she attended a week-long program that took her and other low-income students to visit college campuses in Oklahoma and Texas, introducing them to a world that can be foreign and intimidating.

The trip was organised by Talent Search, a programme offered through the decades-old federal programme TRiO, which helps first-generation, low-income students get into college and graduate by providing the support they may not be receiving at home.

Trump wants to cut TRiO and another initiative called GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programmes) by $193m, saying many such programmes are redundant and there is limited evidence that some of the initiatives work – assertions that Tate and university officials wholeheartedly reject.

Tate is now 21 and a junior at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, studying to become a teacher. She pays for college with a combination of Pell Grants, which the President has pledged to protect, and other scholarships. She lives with her grandparents in Boswell, about 30 miles away, so that she can coach girls’ sports teams there.

Out of Tate’s graduating high school class of 17, six attempted college or a trade school and only two stuck with it, including her. She plans to be the first college graduate in her immediate family.

“School was a place where I felt at home, where I felt like I could be part of something bigger than myself,” said Tate, who did not vote in November. “And in order for me to further my ability to be something better than myself, I knew that college would have to happen.”

For students trying to break out of poverty, the cuts come from multiple directions.

The Durant public school system superintendent has seen state funding dramatically decline since 2009, and he is worried his classrooms will suffer if Trump directs more federal funds to school vouchers and urban charter schools.

The Durant-based Oklahoma Shakespearean Festival offers a summer theatre camp and after-school theatre, dance and music classes to local students, many of whom come from poor families. The festival used to receive $150,000 a year in state and federal funds, which have been slashed to $26,000 a year, including NEA grants that Trump wants to eliminate.

And the Boys and Girls Club of Durant watches over about 200 children and teenagers each day after school and during the summer in a former middle school that’s still undergoing renovation. More than half of the students are Native American and 20 per cent live with their grandparents or in foster care.

“From three o’clock to six o’clock in the evening is the worst time for kids – that’s when kids get in trouble, get into vandalism, when young ladies get pregnant,” said executive director Larry Long, 69, who attended a Boys and Girls Club in Missouri as a child. “We keep them busy.”

Long has to hustle to keep the club safe, clean and operating. About one-third of funding comes from the federal government, while the rest comes from donations, fees paid by families and other sources.

Long would lose three of his part-time employees if Trump eliminates the Senior Community Service Employment Programme, which pairs low-income people over the age of 55 with government-subsidised jobs at nonprofits and public agencies. The Trump administration says the $434m program has failed to transition enough of these workers into unsubsidised jobs.

Trump has also proposed cutting all federal funding for AmeriCorps Vista (Volunteers in Service to America), which provides staff during the summer, and reducing funding for the federal work-study programme, which pays some of the club’s college-aged workers.

One of the senior workers, Sharon Green, said she learned about the potential cuts while watching PBS, which could also lose federal funding.

“These things are vital,” said Green, 72, a retired accountant. “There’s no way that they should have cuts – I mean, there are many other places where they could cut, it looks like to me.”

Green will not say who she voted for but said, “I didn’t have any concerns along these lines for my party. I did vote, and I am proud of the way that I voted, and I don’t believe we would have seen the cuts coming. Who’s to know?”

On a recent afternoon, Long interrupted the students’ late-afternoon meal of pigs-in-blankets to introduce a reporter. A mention of the President prompted excited applause from the children, and a small group of boys at one table started chanting: “Trump! Trump! Trump!”

© Washington Post

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