Information access and information literacy under siege: The potentially devastating effects of the proposed 2017 White House budget on already-marginalized populations in the United States
First Monday

Information access and information literacy under siege: The potentially devastating effects of the proposed 2017 White House budget on already-marginalized populations in the United States by Courtney Douglass, Ursula Gorham, Renee F. Hill, Kelly Hoffman, Paul T. Jaeger, Gagan Jindal, and Beth St. Jean

This paper explores major proposed funding cuts to the United States 2017 federal budget, how these cuts align with a neoliberal ideology, and how they ultimately diminish information access and literacy among marginalized populations including, but not limited to, the elderly, working poor, impoverished communities, people of color, elderly, chronically ill, and disabled. A great many of these effects to access and literacy would directly alter the ways in which people are able — or unable — to access and use the Internet and all of the ways in which it is essential to information and engagement. By examining the benefits of the human interest organizations that serve these populations and are in danger of losing funding, this paper examines the ways in which the proposed cuts will exacerbate existing inequities in education and opportunity in society.


Background on neoliberalism
Proposed cuts and their implications




The neoliberal economic and neoconservative political ideologies favored by the current U.S. administration are reflected in the President’s budget proposal released in May 2017. Taken together, the proposed budget cuts severely undermine — and, in some cases, eliminate — organizations that promote the public good. Further, these cuts jeopardize one of the foundations of our democracy, namely, an informed and engaged citizenry. Democracy cannot exist in an illiterate society. Its sole basis is a government designed by and for the people, and the people must be in the know to effectively create a society that benefits themselves and others. The idea and practice of being “in the know” is the main concept undergirding information literacy — broadly defined as “the ability to recognize information needs and identify, evaluate, and use information effectively” [1]. In this paper, we will examine proposed cuts in four key areas — communication and the arts, healthcare, library services, and justice — and elaborate how these cuts would further exacerbate existing inequities concerning access to accurate, timely, and relevant information.

The 2017 federal budget proposed by the Trump administration has attracted a great deal of attention from the media, politicians, and members of the public for the extent and depth of cuts it proposes. This budget — primarily based on the recommendations of the Republican Study Committee and the Heritage Foundation, two influential sources of policy ideas among conservatives — would slash funding for many social services and institutions, from Medicaid to health research to food assistance to public libraries (Achenbach and Sun, 2017; Davidson, 2017; Snell, et al., 2017; Strauss, 2017a; Straus, 2017b). One major continuity, however, is that many of the cuts directly or indirectly impact information access and information literacy — how able people are to find and use information and how prepared they are to evaluate it — in a wide range of contexts, as well as the amount of information made available to the public. This calls into question the possibility of the Trump administration having an underlying neoliberal agenda aimed at hurting marginalized peoples.

For example, the budget defunds and closes multiple federal agencies that support direct public information access through libraries, such as the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). It also cancels funding programs that support specific library initiatives, such as the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL) program. These funds are central to the ability of libraries to provide free public Internet access and information literacy training, and as these institutions are the only public agencies that consistently provide such opportunities nationwide, these cuts would greatly undermine the social safety net that exists for people with no personal means for accessing information online (Jaeger, et al.,, 2017; Jaeger, et al.,, in press).

Further, again as examples, the budget would significantly affect the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation, (NSF), Library of Congress (LoC), National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Smithsonian Institution (SI), and countless other federal libraries and archives by reducing their abilities to collect and disseminate information to the public. With the cuts to many free venues of quality, accurate, and educational information, such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), National Public Radio (NPR), and public television stations, the public’s ability to remain part of an informed democracy will be further diminished.

The preeminent historian David McCullough’s 2017 book includes the perfectly succinct assertion: “For self-government to work, the people must be educated” [2]. The removal or reduction of so many avenues of public information access and dissemination, along with the reduced support for institutions that promote information and Internet access and literacy would threaten to eviscerate the ability of the public to be educated, simultaneously impacting countless individual lives and the overall health of self-government.

Using the lenses of health information, legal information, libraries, and communication and the arts as examples, this paper explores the wide-ranging impacts on the public’s information and Internet access and literacy — along with the accompanying reductions in information dissemination and availability — that could result from the adoption of the President’s proposed budget. These areas are indeed just some of the more prominent examples, as the information issues raised by the proposed budget are myriad. No mere thought exercise, this paper is intended to bring to the fore a core theme in this proposed budget that has thus far been neglected in discussions about it — the impoverishment of information.

Given the centrality of the Internet to so many information activities, and to the ways in which so many people address major life needs, threats to overall information access, literacy, availability, and dissemination are inherently challenges to the ability of many individuals to use — and just as importantly, effectively use — the Internet and its wealth of information and resources. Some of these challenges are very direct in terms of Internet access; greatly decreasing support for public libraries will mean that many people without access otherwise will have less access to or even lose their primarily means of participating online if libraries have to cut computers, databases, connection speeds, and/or hours to save money. These budget cuts also could directly reduce the amount of educational materials available online for all users. If agencies have fewer funds to new scientific inquires and artistic endeavors, there simply will be less newly created scholarship, research, and educational information being made available online in areas like health, the arts, and law. Cuts made to education-oriented agency budgets might also mean that agencies would struggle to make the information they have available online. While this paper discusses these issues primarily in the language of access and literacy, each point raised would have many direct impacts on the availability and dissemination of information through the Internet, the ability of many members of society to access and use the Internet, and the ability of people to rely on the Internet to helping them address questions related to major life issues.



Background on neoliberalism

Proponents of this cost-cutting of public information sources and supports for public Internet access place these cuts within the driving economic and political ideologies of conservatism in the United States for nearly half a century: neoliberalism. A foundational element — perhaps the foundational element — of the Reagan revolution in 1980 was the shrinking of government services, with the notable exception of the national security apparatus. This central belief that government should be reduced to a minimum is known as neoliberalism, first picking up steam and gaining national attention in the 1970s.

The neoliberal economic ideology mandates that decisions of governance be based on what is best for markets, meaning that economic, political, and social decisions are all driven by market concerns and organized by the language and rationality of markets. This ideology is “consistently hostile to the public realm,” seeking to replace public goods with “the rule of private interests, coordinated by the markets” [3]. Through this focus on the private sector, many agencies of the public good found in urban areas have dissipated significantly in recent decades (Cohen, 2003; Dean, 2013).

The neoliberal ideology is designed to support the consolidation of wealth and influence through the “creative destruction” of institutions with egalitarian objectives (Harvey, 2007a, 2007b). As such, neoliberalism is the key force in moving support away from public entities to private ones, effectively undermining the ability of many public institutions to meet the same goals that they were once able to (Buschman, 2012). As president, Reagan liked to frequently repeat the joke that the nine scariest words in the English language were: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” (Reagan, 1986).

In 1987, after being elected Prime Minister for a third consecutive term, Margaret Thatcher stated: “There is no such thing as society;” instead “the great driving engine, the driving force of life” is individuals and groups wanting to make money (Thatcher, 1987). This statement was a clear window into the thinking of adherents of neoliberalism. Without society, nothing can be the fault of society, alleviating government of the need to look after those members of society who are in need of help. Without the need to support all members of a society in need, institutions of the public good become utterly superfluous. Now, there are at least three different major arguments that society does not exist underpinning neoliberalism, all being united by a central premise that rejects any central structure binding people together beyond economics (Dean, 2013).

Neoliberalism has become the driver of “policy and economic discussions,” but it also “has a strong and fluid cultural aspect” [4]. This cultural dimension is strongly evidenced in the proposed 2017 White House budget. The changes in political philosophy that were ushered in during the Reagan administration led to deregulation, altered tax and social priorities, spending cuts, and an emphasis on documentable contributions from organizations (Buschman, 2003). As a result, neoliberalism has badly undermined the value accorded to public goods and public services by demanding that public institutions — such as libraries, schools, and the arts — demonstrate the economic contributions of the services they provide (Jaeger, et al., 2013; Jaeger, et al., 2014). As such, the winnowing away of many key avenues for societal support of access to information and the Internet and of information literacy and education is a seamless expansion of neoliberal thinking. Supporting access to and ability to use information has no easily demonstrated outcomes, thus it is presumed to be unworthy of government funding.



Proposed cuts and their implications

Communication and the arts

Together, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) — three federal agencies that promote and fund the arts in the United States — comprised only .02 percent of federal spending in fiscal year 2016. Yet, White House Budget Director, Mike Mulvaney, argues that these programs hold no value for the American people, and certainly do not carry more weight than defense spending, which often supports private industry with outsourced contracts and thus encourages capitalist interests.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) has a long history of social and educational enrichment programs that are publicly funded and therefore bound to the public interest. CPB, which includes National Public Radio (NPR) and Voice of America (VOA), works with non-profit, government, and education agencies to determine the best programming options to supplement education and information services. As part of the public sphere, these organizations facilitate transparency and serve as an “instrument for preventing and fighting corruption,” in government [5]. Aufderheide (1996) points out that it is economic interests and relationships that dominate American culture, decision-making, and broadcasting practices, in contrast to the political and civic ideologies that dominate in Europe. As such, the idea of public broadcasting in America does not satisfy a neoliberal/capitalist view, and has struggled to earn the respect of and to secure funding from legislators since the late 1920s, even though remote regions of the U.S. population only had access to public radio signals before XM radio was introduced [6]. The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 established funding for CPB and its affiliates for equipment, services, research, and policy, but only in a limited capacity for programming. Because public broadcasting relies on private and small corporate donors as well as federal funds, many legislators “feared the specter of a ‘fourth network’ that would reflect the liberal views of the philanthropic and educational elite,” (Aufderheide, 1996; Gibson, 1977; Macy, 1974; Pepper, 1979). Ironically, television’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) sponsors local public stations with traditionally more conservative programming, and a much more diverse audience than publicly funded talk radio.

It was, in fact, NPR’s proximity to Washington D.C. that allowed it to air details of federal administrations and agencies that “enraged” former President, Richard Nixon, so much so that he sought to abolish the network (Stone, 1985). This is not unlike the current administration’s efforts to reduce or eliminate public radio and television — services that provide higher quality, accurate information to an underserved public that likely does not support or benefit from Trump’s neoliberal agenda. Public broadcasting does not align with commercialism, rather it remains a source of accurate, timely information, and as an educational tool that underserved communities have come to depend on. Eliminating funds from CPB stands to leave a gap in informative, educational programming for which other departments would be “reluctant to proffer their [equally] scarce financial support,” [7] as was the case in Ireland when educational programming was the mutual responsibility of the communications, finance, and education departments, and each assumed the other would take the helm, (Grummell, 2004). Grummell also notes that the education programming offered by public broadcasting often promotes the “experiential knowledge and community empowerment,” needed for an information society; moreover “public service broadcasters are a key asset in bridging the digital divide,” [8] that exists and is ever widening between the privileged and the marginalized.

Moore-Russo, et al. (2012) reinforce educational programming as a positive link “with children’s academic skills, engagement and attitudes toward learning,” [9]. Their study analyzes 42 PBS programs that aired between 1967–2011, including ‘Sesame Street,’ ‘Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,’ ‘Martha Speaks,’ and ‘Wild Kratts’, coding for cues that suggest the promotion of Social Emotional Behavior; Reasoning Skills; Healthy Living; Mathematics; Social Studies; Literacy; Science; and Visual Arts. While this type of programming is featured on cable and commercial television, children in underserved communities often lack access, and when more of these programs are “available through paid media than through free public broadcasting, there is a danger of increasing the school readiness gap between those who can afford to buy programming and those who can’t,” [10]. Students from socio-economically disadvantaged communities stand to lose the most from these cuts.

Similarly, given the tenuous future of school arts programs, the contributions of the NEA and NEH have proven invaluable to offering supplemental arts experiences for communities most at-risk for losing education funding for the arts and humanities. Throughout its history, the NEA alone has issued over US$5 billion in grants for programs in nearly every U.S. state (National Endowment for the Arts, 2015), including the New Ballet Ensemble in Memphis, Tenn. that offers free dance programs, tutoring, and a Family Resource Center in public schools; Hoonah City Schools, Alaska to support a heritage through music project; the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education in Dover, Del. to provide assessment for arts programs in schools; the Central Music Academy, Inc., in Lexington, Ky., which provides free, weekly music lessons to school-aged children in traditional instruments, as well as steel drums and other folk instruments; and the Marwen Foundation, Inc. in Chicago, to offer visual arts classes as well as leadership skill development classes for school-aged children, (National Endowment for the Arts, 2015). As most of the programs supported by these grants are free for school-aged children and their families, they aim to supplement learning and bridge the achievement gap for lower-income, urban, rural, and other at-risk students. While the arts are considered less cognitive, studies point to greater engagement and academic achievement for students whose classrooms integrate the arts in their learning.

In fact, a decade-long study in the 1990s shows that low-income students are more likely to participate in after-school arts programs, and that these students tend to fare better academically and emotionally than their peers (Heath and Roach, 1999). These programs have the greatest effect on lower-performing students as evidenced from Ingram and Seashore’s 2003 study of Minneapolis public school students (Rabkin and Redmond, 2006). Most arts-integration programs appear in urban public schools, though Rabkin and Redmond note that lower-income rural systems are beginning to introduce arts-integration in their schools as well. Unfortunately, even high-performing suburban school districts often only hire related-arts teachers — that is to say, teachers for non-content areas such as art, music, and media — for part-time positions, and those who have full-time positions can work in two or more schools, limiting their interaction with and impact on students.

Without the support from organizations like NEA and NEH, young people will not have the access to experiences that are proven to increase their critical thinking and engagement (Rabkin and Redmond, 2006). It is not a stretch to connect these skills with information seeking and processing behaviors, leaving these researchers wondering if the White House has more nefarious motivations that extend beyond simply eliminating painting and piano lessons. Given that Mr. Trump earned substantial votes from working-class and working-poor voters who bought into the fake news and infotainment of his campaign, he and his administration can only benefit from another generation of voters who lack both information access and the abilities required to identify and critically evaluate the information they need to participate in our democracy as more informed citizens and to lead more prosperous lives.


Health justice — an ideal in which everyone has equitable opportunities to live a long and healthy life — requires that we recognize and act on a moral imperative to view and support each person as an individual who is morally entitled to “a sufficient and equitable capability to be healthy” [11]. Unfortunately, health is yet another area in which we are barreling toward further inequities in our country under the new administration. On 4 May 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act of 2017 (AHCA) (H.R. 1628) by a very narrow margin (217 to 213), aiming to partially repeal Obamacare (i.e., the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA)) (Kaplan and Pear, 2017). Although this bill proposes to reduce the federal deficit by US$119 billion over the 2017–2026 period (Congressional Budget Office, 2017), it does so largely through cuts that will disproportionately negatively affect people who are older, lower income, and in poorer health (Backus, 2017). The largest cuts, by far, are to Medicaid (Kurtzleben, 2017) — a program that provides health coverage for people who are low income and/or disabled. Under AHCA, the number of people enrolled in Medicaid is expected to drop by 14 million within the next decade (Kurtzleben, 2017).

AHCA is projected to nearly double the number of uninsured individuals, as compared with the continuation of Obamacare. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that under AHCA, the number of uninsured in 2026 will be 51 million, while under Obamacare this figure would be 28 million (Backus, 2017). Put another way, the uninsured rate in 2026 would be 18.6 percent under AHCA versus just 10 percent under Obamacare. Additionally, considering current trends, the number of uninsured individuals under Obamacare would possibly continue to decrease (Glied, et al., 2016). In contrast, just in its first year (2018), AHCA would lead to 14 million more uninsured people (Congressional Budget Office, 2017). Older people (over 50) with an income of less than twice the poverty level (currently set at US$12,060 for a single-member household in any state other than Alaska or Hawaii;, 2017) would be disproportionately represented among these newly uninsured (Backus, 2017).

Although average premiums in 2026 are projected to be lower under AHCA than under Obamacare, some groups of people will be paying less and some will be paying far more. Individuals who are younger, healthier, and wealthier will likely see decreases in their premiums, while individuals who are older, sicker, and poorer will likely face large increases in their premiums (Backus, 2017; Kurtzleben, 2017). Under AHCA, states can apply for a waiver that would enable them to allow health insurers to: (1) Charge older people premiums that are more than five times higher than those they charge to younger people; (2) Charge higher rates or deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, such as cancer diabetes or arthritis; and, (3) Eliminate coverage of essential health benefits, including maternity care, prescription drugs, mental health, substance abuse, and rehabilitative services (Backus, 2017; Kodjak, 2017). States can also seek waivers to allow health insurance companies to charge non-continuously covered individuals a premium based on their health and to impose annual and lifetime limits on covered benefits (such limits are banned under Obamacare) (Backus, 2017). Meeting the requirements to qualify for these waivers, established under ACHA, would be surprisingly simple (Jost, 2017). According to Jost (2017), “Essentially, any state that wanted a waiver would get one.” As a result of these waivers, older people, people who have lower incomes, and people with poorer health — the very people who are often the most in need of health care — may end up not being able to afford health insurance and may be forced to go without health care.

Overall, AHCA unfairly penalizes those who are older, lower income, and in poorer health, and particularly individuals who fit into all of these categories. Instead of requiring people to purchase health insurance (as under Obamacare), AHCA incentivizes people to do so by protecting them IF they acquire and continuously maintain their health insurance. Health insurance companies will not be allowed to drop covered individuals or charge them more for a preexisting condition; however, if someone lets their insurance lapse for more than 63 days, the insurer can charge them a penalty of 30 percent of their premium (Kodjak, 2017). However, the aforementioned cuts to Medicaid under AHCA will likely also make it even more difficult for the most vulnerable populations to remain continuously insured with shrinking options for affordable healthcare. Approximately 5.6 million Americans paid the tax penalty in 2015 under ACA to opt out of purchasing health insurance, many citing the prohibitive cost of health insurance as the reason (Pear, 2016). However, Obamacare would allow these people to purchase health insurance subsequently without additional penalties. Under AHCA, people who remain without health insurance for more than two months can be charged a premium based on their health status (Backus, 2017) and they will have to wait six months for their coverage to kick in after they have purchased a new plan (Levey and Kim, 2017). These stipulations can result in dire consequences for many of our most vulnerable citizens, such as an older person who is unable to afford the significantly higher premiums health insurance companies can charge them or who forgets to mail the check in for their premium, a low-income individual who becomes (perhaps temporarily) unable to afford their premium, and an individual who is healthy and does not believe they need health coverage but then becomes seriously ill.

These examples point to an underlying connection between AHCA and health literacy, and suggest the potential for AHCA to disproportionately negatively impact populations with lower health literacy. Health literacy, “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health care decisions” (Ratzan and Parker, 2000), will certainly be necessary for people to understand the numerous, complex stipulations of AHCA, to take these into account in their health-related decision-making, and to foresee the potential consequences for their own health. Unfortunately, nearly 90 percent of U.S. adults have a below-proficient level of health literacy (Kutner, et al., 2006) and low levels of health literacy are particularly prevalent among older, low-income, minority, and immigrant populations (National Network of Libraries of Medicine, 2014). Health insurance literacy in particular, has been found to be just low to moderate among older adults, and to be lowest among those who are older, poorer, less well-educated, and in poorer health (McCormack, et al., 2009). Obamacare includes provisions for navigator programs to assist individuals with enrolling in a health insurance plan on the marketplace, but President Donald Trump’s administration may choose to end funding for this program in coming months (Gooch, 2017). In fact, just as this paper is about to go to press, Trump cut funding for these navigator programs by about 40 percent (Alonso-Zaldivar, 2017). The ACHA does not seem to make any provisions for its own navigator program or a similar function in the event of implementation, which could make it even more difficult for vulnerable individuals to enroll in a health insurance plan.

Low health literacy levels are of tremendous significance, as they have been found to be tied with numerous negative outcomes. For example, people with low health literacy are less likely to get preventative health care (Bennett, et al., 2009; Institute of Medicine, 2004); more likely to get late diagnoses of serious diseases, such as cancer (Merriman, et al., 2002); and more likely to be hospitalized and to have poor health outcomes (Ad Hoc Committee on Health Literacy, 1999; Baker, et al., 2002; Institute of Medicine, 2004; Schillinger, et al., 2002). Inadequate health literacy has even been found to be associated with higher mortality rates among the elderly (Baker, et al., 2007). Low health literacy also plays a central role in the development and persistence of health disparities. In fact, an individual’s health literac