Delaware County, NY — If President Donald Trump is successful in getting key parts of his proposed budget passed by the Republican-led Congress — especially his cuts in Medicaid and in the Food Stamp program — he is certain to face a rebellion among people in places that went heavily for him in last November’s election. Places like Delaware County in heavily Republican Upstate New York.
My family owns a summer home in Delaware County where we have lived on and off, mostly during the summer (or on weekends before it gets too cold) for the last 31 years, making us, if not native upstate New Yorkers, then at least accepted neighbors and friends of people who are.
Tucked up against the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania just at the point where the East and West Branches of the Delaware flow together to form the Delaware River, Delaware County in the Catskill Mountains is an area that was hit hard by the deliberate deindustrialization policies of the last half century or so promoted by alternating Democratic and Republican governments in Washington, DC. Once home to myriad large and small saw mills that supplied, for example, ash lumber stock for the Louisville Slugger company in Kentucky, to medical equipment manufacturers and the like, and to the usual array of auto dealerships, grocery stores, restaurants, bars, vacation resorts, day camps, etc., the county saw its well-paying and often unionized jobs move abroad or, after passage of NAFTA, down to Mexico. And those companies moved away or shut down, so did many of the smaller businesses that depended on paying customers. Today, the poverty rate in the county is officially at about 25%, drug use and alcoholism, as in much of rural America, are both rampant, joblessness is higher than the state average, with a third of households classified as distressed, meaning that they are spending more than 30% of the median family income of $32,500 just to meet mortgage payments or rent (that’s almost $20,000 a year less than the national median family income level and only $2000 above the official federal poverty level for a family of four!).
People here are white — about 97% of them, in fact, according to the latest US Census. Half of them have at best a high school education. Don’t get me wrong. These are clever, enduring and savvy folks who know how to get by on incomes that are often quite low. They know how to grow gardens, how to fish and to hunt for deer and other game, how to fix their own automobiles and pickup trucks — things that most urban and suburban Americans have entirely lost the ability to do.
They can be fiercely loyal to their community and generous among each other, but they resent outsiders, whether in Albany or the nation’s capital, telling them what to do or how to do it.
When I have talked with people up in the Catskills about Trump, they’ve told me that what they liked was his promise to bring back jobs. They also liked his anti-immigrant talk, including his plan to erect a wall along the Mexican border, though you have to look long and hard to find a black or latino person in the whole area. Meanwhile, when it comes to actual immigrant people living in the community, attitudes are generally more accepting. The local Chinese restaurant in the town of Hancock, for example, located right at the convergence of the East and West Branch rivers, is a popular spot, in part because it’s the only affordable place open late at night. The fact that its friendly owners are Chinese immigrants and that they their kids attend the local public school doesn’t seem to bother anyone. But I guess Trump’s claim that immigrants are “taking your job” still can seem threatening in the abstract, even if none are doing that around here.
Fox TV is popular in the Catskills, and it is usually the station TV screens are tuned to when a restaurant or bar has a television or playing. So it’s understandable that people believe the “fake news” that immigrants are pouring across the Mexican border, when in fact the net trend in immigration these in recent years has been in the other direction.
Not surprisingly, Delaware County, like most of Upstate New York, gave Hillary Clinton the bum’s rush last fall, voting for Donald Trump over her by nearly 12,000 votes to 6600 — an almost 2:1 landslide.
But here’s the rub: Half of the children attending public schools in this country come from families that have incomes low enough that they qualify for free lunches, suggesting that a huge percentage of the county’s population also qualifies for SNAP (formerly Food Stamp) assistance, whether they’re receiving aid or not. Also, over 16% of the population relies upon Medicaid to pay for their health care. All of those programs would be severely cut back in Trump’s proposed 2018 budget, which would go into effect next fall if approved by the Republican House and Senate. At one church I know of in the county, the pastor was savvy enough to arrange to have his church get access to federally provided surplus food to distibute to needy people in the community each Sunday morning. He was surprised to discover that over half of his own parishioners fell below the income limit that made them eligible to be recipients of the food aid.
And as popular as Trump was in November up here, I suspect his popularity is going to take a huge hit locally if Medicare and Food Stamps get whacked, especially as people start to realize that Trump is unable to do anything to bring back jobs to the region as he vowed to do if elected. Like most poor regions of the country, the whole local economy in most of Upstate New York depends upon federal transfer payments, whether it’s Social Security checks for the elderly and disabled (up here most people don’t have pensions or savings, so when they retire, Social Security is all they have to live on), Aid to Families with Dependent Children, SNAP, WIC, and Veterans benefits are mainstays not just for their recipients, but for local businesses. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that every dollar in SNAP assistance provided to some low-income person or family needing food assistance, for example, generates almost $1.50 in economic activity in the region. Cut funding from those programs, as Trump and many Republicans in Congress want to do, and the economy in a place like Delaware County, NY will just wither.
So, I strongly suspect, local support for a man who promised to make America, and by inference, places like Delaware County, “great again” will be short-lived.
Delaware County and its people, and other places like it, will survive Trump’s betrayal, just as they survived years of betrayal by politicians, Democrat and Republican alike, in years past. But I suspect that the passion with which many threw their lot in with Trump and his fantastical promises will make for a bigger letdown than after earlier elections.
The residual political cynicism left over from Trump’s betrayal, though, will make it that much harder for any future genuinely progressive politician on the left to win such people over. Still, I have to believe that a party and a slate of candidates at all levels who, instead of being Trump-like charlatans, can make a sincere case to such distressed areas and their citizenry explaining how they can help make their lives and their communities better off, they can be won over.