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 literacy has been found to be a stronger predictor of their health than their age, race, educational level, employment status, and income (Weiss, 2007). AHCA will doubly damn our older, poorer, and sicker citizens, further exacerbating the potential impacts of their limited health literacy and pushing health care even further out of their reach. Under AHCA, health disparities are only likely to grow and health justice to become an even more distant dream.

Library services

Public and school libraries are important community institutions that promote interest-driven informal learning, particularly in less affluent areas, providing Internet access, technology training, digital literacy opportunities, and safe spaces for youth after school, along with many other resources (Bertot, et al., 2008; Braun, et al., 2014; Martin, 2016). Less affluent communities, which often have less funding for schools, fewer households with broadband Internet access, and fewer students enrolled in academic enrichment programs, are the ones that need the free resources of the public library the most to fully participate in twenty-first century society. School libraries in particular are associated with better student outcomes (Lance and Hofschire, 2011). Despite these benefits, the President’s proposed 2018 budget eliminates two important resources for libraries, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL) program.

IMLS supports the 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums (broadly defined to include zoos, botanical gardens, and the like) in the United States (Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2015a). Created by the Museum and Library Services Act of 1996, IMLS combined two former entities that supported museums and libraries separately. The agency was reauthorized in 2003, and again in 2010 with an added mandate to undertake research and data collection (Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2015b). In FY 2017 (under a continuing resolution), the IMLS budget was appropriated over US$183 million for grants under the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA), over US$31 million for museums, and US$1.7 million for research, evaluation and data collection. Roughly six percent of the total, US$14 million, was appropriated for administration (Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2015c).

The largest role of IMLS, monetarily, is to administrate the LSTA funds. The bulk of this money — over US$156 million out of about US$183 million — was directly passed on to states in the form of grants (Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2017a). The states (including the District of Columbia and U.S. territories) use this money to support libraries in ways that are appropriate for their individual circumstances. The remaining funds are awarded to libraries in the form of competitive grants. IMLS also distributes a smaller yet still significant amount of money (almost US$32 million) to museums, including almost a million dollars for Native American or Native Hawaiian museums and almost US$1.5 million to support programs related to African American history and culture.

In addition to distributing funds and grants, IMLS is the main collector of data about public libraries in the U.S. The yearly Public Libraries Survey, which collects information on library usage, funding, collections, and staffing, has been conducted by IMLS since 2007, when the responsibility for the survey was transferred from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The survey results are freely available for use in policy research, identifying library trends, and other research activities.

The President’s proposed budget calls for no less than the complete elimination of IMLS, after a single year of limited funding to cover the administrative costs of shutting down the agency [12]. This decision is justified with the claim that IMLS funds are not usually “operation-sustaining,” but are for “discrete, short-term projects”; therefore, the reasoning goes, eliminating the agency would not result in a “significant number” of libraries and museums closing [13].

IAL is administered by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Academic Improvement (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). IAL grants are awarded to high-need “local educational agencies” (school districts and their school libraries) and national non-profits (NNPs) that serve students in high-need districts. In FY 2016, IAL had just over US$26 million to award as discretionary grants ranging in size from US$225,000 to US$5.5 million. IAL supports “high-quality programs” that build literacy skills in low-income areas; 26 of the 29 grants awarded in FY 2016 went to school libraries. The U.S. Department of Education’s budget request for FY 2018 suggests eliminating funding for IAL due to its “limited impact”, arguing that the programs supported by IAL can use funds from other sources, particularly Title 1 (Strauss, 2017c).

The effects of these proposed cuts are both significant and widespread:

  • Reduced services and quality. The President’s justification for eliminating IMLS is that “local, state, and private funds” compose the “vast majority” of funding for libraries, and therefore the loss of Federal funds for “discrete, short-term projects” will not cause libraries to close. There are two major flaws in this argument: first, it assumes that the only goal of a library is to be open, and does not take into account the fact that library programming and other “discrete, short-term projects” provide a great deal of value to a community. While the loss of IMLS funds may not be enough to shutter a library permanently, some libraries may choose to compensate for the loss by reducing hours or staff, instead of eliminating a program or service. Secondly, and more profoundly, it is disingenuous to characterize IMLS grants as merely funding “discrete, short-term projects.” A great many IMLS grants go to projects that will have a positive impact on a specific library or the entire library community, even after the grant period has ended. For instance, the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program supports professional development projects for librarians; the Museum Assessment Program sponsors a museum’s self-study that will help improve the museum’s operations moving forward. The many research projects funded by IMLS grants result in new knowledge to be used by others long after the funded research has concluded. Other grants with a long-term impact have funded library computer upgrades, new items for the library’s collection, and the digitization of archival materials.

  • Disproportionate burden on lower-income communities. Although the President’s budget claims that “local, state, and private funds” compose the “vast majority” of funding for libraries, the truth is that 85 percent of public library funding comes from local governments (Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2016). Poorer areas have less government revenue to channel into libraries, and these libraries will likely feel the loss of federal funds more keenly. As for state funds, states are required to match half of the funds they receive from LSTA (Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2015d; Legal Information Institute, 1996). It is possible and perhaps even likely that many states will reduce their level of library funding when it is no longer required. As for IAL, those grants are specifically intended for “high-need” school districts, defined for FY 2016 as districts with at least 25 percent of elementary and high school students living below the poverty line (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Yet lower-income communities need the services provided by libraries the most. In particular, lower-income households are less likely to have broadband Internet access at home — just 53 percent of households that make less than US$30,000 a year have Internet access at home, as opposed to 93 percent of households that make more than US$75,000 (Pew Research Center, 2017). Virtually all libraries in the U.S. provide access to the Internet, through public access computers as well as WiFi that patrons can use with their own devices (American Library Association, 2015; Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2016).

  • Disproportionate impact on minority groups. The loss of IMLS and the IAL program will have a disproportionate impact on members of minority groups and the libraries that serve them. IAL grants are only awarded to school districts with a high percentage of children living in poverty — a group that black, American Indian, Hispanic and Pacific islander children are more likely to be in than children who are white or Asian (National Center for Education Statistics, 2017). IMLS has many grant programs that are specifically for programs benefiting minority groups, including Native Hawaiian Library Services grants and Museum Grants for African American History and Culture.

  • Loss of information about public libraries. Unless the Public Libraries Survey is transferred to another agency, eliminating IMLS would put a stop to almost 30 years of annual data collection about public libraries. The loss of this information would make library advocacy even more difficult by removing evidence of public libraries’ impact.


The Legal Services Corporation (LSC), an independent non-profit corporation established by Congress in 1974, is the largest funder of civil legal services in the United States (Johnstone, 2011). “LSC awards grants through a competitive process and currently funds 134 independent legal aid organizations with more than 800 offices throughout the United States and its territories” (Legal Services Corporation, n.d.). LSC grantees generally provide legal services in the areas of family law (e.g., divorce, custody, and domestic violence), housing, and consumer issues (Staudt, 2009).

LSC was initially the beneficiary of steady increases in federal funding, with its budget growing to US$321 million within the first five years of its existence (Johnson, 2009). Since then, however, LSC has experienced repeated and significant budget cuts (Smith and Stratford, 2012). Numbers reported by the LSC confirm the extent to which these cuts dramatically impact services: “In 2010, when LSC received its largest appropriation in absolute dollars, grantees provided services to 2.3 million people in all households served. Four years later, after LSC’s appropriations fell, LSC grantees were able to help only 1.9 million people in all households served, a decline of 17 percent” (Legal Services Corporation, 2016).

Thus, LSC has never been fully able to achieve its goal of closing the justice gap — defined as the “difference between the current level of legal assistance and the level which is necessary to meet the needs of low-income Americans” [14] — due to inadequate resources. Nearly one in five Americans now qualifies for LSC-funded legal assistance; unfortunately, at least 50 percent of eligible individuals who seek assistance from LSC-funded organizations are turned away (Legal Services Corporation, 2012).

Information and communications technologies (ICTs), however, now offer a means for providers of legal services to help an increasing number of individuals, albeit in a more limited manner. While they may not be able to provide traditional, face-to-face legal services to everyone in need, they can make sure that online resources and tools are available to help people address their legal needs. Since 2000, through its Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) program, LSC has played an instrumental role in expanding access to online legal information. As stated on the program’s Web site, one of its key goals is to “[e]ffectively and efficiently provide high quality legal assistance to low-income persons and to promote access to the judicial system through legal information, advice, and representation” (Legal Services Corporation, n.d.) (emphasis added).

By way of example, the TIG program provided crucial early support for the development of a network of statewide legal information Web sites that now spans the 50 states, District of Columbia, and several U.S. territories (Cabral, et al., 2012; Morris, 2013). Many of these Web sites have made the transition from primarily static collections of resources (often electronic versions of print materials) and basic links to dynamic Web sites that often incorporate automated legal form and document preparation systems. A growing number of sites now offer remote assistance capabilities, such as instant messaging programs that put self-help users in contact with trained specialists.

The TIG program has also encouraged providers of legal services to explore new ways to use technology to expand their reach. In 2015, for example, the Legal Aid Society of Orange County was awarded US$152,200 to develop an online dispute resolution and mediation portal for small claims cases. Other recent TIG projects focus on streamlining an increasingly diverse array of online services — for example, in 2014, the Legal Services of Greater Miami was awarded US$105,000 to create a multilingual (English, Spanish, Creole) online intake system that is to be integrated into Florida’s statewide legal information Web site.

All told, in the past seventeen years, approximately 670 grants totaling more than US$57 million have been awarded through the TIG program. TIG funding has fluctuated over the years, ranging from a high of US$7 million in 2001 to a low of US$1.2 million in 2006 (Staudt, 2009). Funding in recent years has been relatively steady. Between 2011 and 2014, TIG program funding stayed in the range of US$3.2–US$3.4 million (Legal Services Corporation, n.d.). Since 2015, the TIG program budget has remained level at around US$4 million, evidencing an ongoing commitment to this program.

The spirit of innovation fostered in the legal services community through the TIG program, however, is now in jeopardy, as President Trump’s proposed budget calls for the elimination of all LSC funding. LSC distributes the vast majority — more than 93 percent — of its federal appropriation to grantee organizations that directly help low-income individuals (Weiss, 2017). Voicing the concerns felt by many critics of this particular proposed cut, Deborah Rhode, a prominent access to justice scholar, notes that

[LSC] grants are highly cost-effective. Over thirty studies show that legal aid delivers vastly more in benefits than it costs. Every dollar invested in legal aid on matters such as evictions and domestic violence saves taxpayers down the line in social consequences of homelessness and family violence. Much of this aid helps individuals meet their most basic human needs and prevents exploitation of the most vulnerable groups: veterans, the elderly, disaster victims, and impoverished children (Rhode, 2017).

However, this maneuver will directly hurt not only those who obtain legal representation from LSC grantee organizations but also those who benefit from the online legal information that these organizations have made possible. Without LSC funds, many legal services providers may be unable to maintain and update the online resources they have created and, over time, they will be of no use to those in need of legal information.




The proposed budget can legitimately be viewed as being intended to dramatically limit information access and literacy for large swaths of the American population. These four areas are clear examples of the ways in which the extreme neoliberal focus of the 2017 proposed White House budget would negatively impact information and Internet access and information literacy and education for many, many people. In most cases, these limitations would further increase economic and social barriers for many populations. Some these four areas even intersect, compounding the impacts; for example, the public libraries in many states play key roles in helping people access and understand health, healthcare, and health insurance information (Bossaller, 2016; Real, et al., 2015; Tanner, et al., 2016).

The overall results of neoliberalism have been labeled the “American nightmare” [15], and this proposed budget exemplifies the aptness of this label for a great many Americans. Even if half of the cuts proposed in the budget are made, the consequences for information access, literacy, and education will be profound in many areas, including the examples detailed above.

Information has long been neglected as a public policy issue (Jaeger, et al., 2015); it affects so many other aspects of policy, so it is easy to look past it, at least for those making policy decisions. Even in an information society in which employment, education, civic participation, commerce, and social interaction are heavily — if not entirely — dependent on information and technology, politicians and policy-makers continue to overlook the vast ramifications for decisions they make related to information. Neoliberalism demands tangible, observable, and immediate benefits, yet the impacts of information access and literacy are not readily visible in most circumstances. In The little prince (Saint-Exupéry, 1943), the character of the fox makes the observation that what is essential is often invisible, and such is the case with information.

The roles of the Internet — what is on it, who can access it, and how well people can use it — would be dramatically impacted by these budget cuts, as well. Limitations on support for Internet access, information literacy of users, channels of access, creation and dissemination of new educational information, and much else would noticeably change the use, availability, and content of the Internet. Information access and literacy are at the heart of the Internet, as the many current discussions of the impacts of a lack of information literacy on assessing the validity of online sources has been abundantly, emphatically clear. Yet, just as the Internet itself has become so omnipresent that it is almost invisible in society (Mackenzie, 2010), information access and literacy are essential aspects of the Internet working as a means of engagement, education, and interaction. The potential limitations of information access, literacy, availability, and dissemination that are prevalent in the proposed budgets at hand that are overlooked in the policy debates would immediately and overwhelmingly affect the roles of the Internet in many people’s lives and in many institution’s activities.

This paper has aimed to demonstrate some of the myriad impacts that a budget like the one proposed by the White House would have on information — access, literacy, technology, and education — and on the large numbers of Americans who rely on public support for these services in order to be fully informed and integrated members of society. The lack of reaction to the implications of the proposed budget for information issues reflects the lack of attention to information issues in policy-making. However, as the neoliberal philosophy drives ever deeper cuts into public services and the public good, the diminution of support for information and the institutions that make sure that it is available, understandable, and useable for all members of the public will profoundly accentuate differences in education and opportunity in society. To avoid such tremendously negative outcomes, members of the public need to actively voice their concerns about these cuts and their impacts before these programs and their benefits disappear. End of article


About the authors

Courtney Douglass, MLIS, MALA, is a first-year doctoral student in Information Studies with the University of Maryland’s iSchool. She previously earned her MLIS from UMD’s iSchool and her M.A. from St. John’s College in Annapolis. Ms. Douglass’ research applies an historical and philosophical lense to studying the impact of information literacy on an engaged democracy. She has taught composition and literature as well as information literacy to college freshmen, and designed a full-credit information literacy course following the University of Maryland’s ‘Scholarship in Practice’ curriculum requirements, and actively participates in the iSchool’s student group, iDiversity.
E-mail: cdoug88 [at] umd [dot] edu

Ursula Gorham Ph.D., J.D. is a Lecturer in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is admitted to practice law in Maryland and previously served as a law clerk in state appellate and federal bankruptcy courts. Her research spans the role of libraries in public policy and political processes; access to legal information and court documents; and, collaborative efforts among libraries, community organizations, and government agencies to meet the information needs of underserved populations. In addition, she currently serves as an Associate Editor of Library Quarterly.
E-mail: ugorham [at] umd [dot] edu

Dr. Renee F. Hill is Senior Lecturer and Director of the School Library program at University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies. In this capacity, she teaches courses and provides guidance that prepare graduate students to become librarians in K-12 school settings. Renee earned a Bachelor’s degree in Exceptional Student Education at Florida Atlantic University. Both her Master’s and Ph.D. were earned in library and information studies at Florida State University. Renee is passionate about and committed to researching and teaching about issues that involve examining methods for increasing understanding of diversity issues in library and information studies. Her research focuses on examining information needs and information access as they relate to diverse populations (e.g., members of various racial/ethnic groups, individuals with disabilities).
E-mail: rfhill [at] umd [dot] edu

Kelly Hoffman is a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park’s College of Information Studies, where she is a graduate research assistant for the ConnectedLib project. Her research interests include media literacy, games as discourse, and political information sharing. She has served as coordinator for the Conference on Inclusion and Diversity in Library and Information Science and for the UMD Disability Summit. Before entering the doctoral program, she earned a Master’s of Library and Information Science from the University of Maryland, College Park, and worked as a systems librarian and knowledge manager. She has also served as a Social Media Manager for the non-profit Random Acts.
E-mail: kmhinmd [at] umd [dot] edu

Paul T. Jaeger, Ph.D., J.D., is Professor, Diversity & Inclusion Officer, and Director of the Master’s of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program of the College of Information Studies and Co-Director of the Information Policy and Access Center (iPAC) at the University of Maryland. His teaching and research focus on the ways in which law and public policy shape information behavior, with a specific focus on issues of human rights and social justice. He is the author of more than 170 journal articles and book chapters, as well as more than a dozen books. His research has been funded by the Institute of Museum amp; Library Services, National Science Foundation, American Library Association, Smithsonian Institution, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. Dr. Jaeger is Editor of Library Quarterly, Editor of Advances in Librarianship, and Associate Editor of the International Journal of Information, Diversity, & Inclusion. He is founder and chair of the Conference on Inclusion and Diversity in Library and Information Science (CIDLIS), and co-founder and co-chair of the UMD Disability Summit. In 2014, he received the Library Journal/ALISE Excellence in Education Award, the international educator of the year award for the field of library and information science.
E-mail: pjaeger [at] [dot] umd [dot] edu

Gagan Jindal,MPH, is a doctoral student in the College of Information at the University of Maryland, College Park. She holds a Master’s of Public Health with a concentration in global and community health from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Her research interests include the online information seeking behaviors of patients managing chronic diseases, consumer health informatics, and user research with patients. Prior to joining the iSchool, Gagan worked as a research analyst in the health informatics division at NORC at the University of Chicago in Bethesda, Maryland and as a program associate for a mobile health start-up, Vibrent Health, in Fairfax, Virginia.
E-mail: gjindal [at] terpmail [dot] umd [dot] edu

Beth St. Jean, MLS, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the College of Information Studies (, the Assistant Director of the Information Policy and Access Center (iPAC) (, and an affiliate faculty member of the Horowitz Center for Health Literacy (, all at the University of Maryland, College Park ( She holds an MLS and a Ph.D. in information from the University of Michigan School of Information ( Beth’s research aims to improve people’s long-term health outlooks by exploring the important interrelationships between their health-related information behaviors, their health literacy, their health-related self-efficacy, and their health behaviors. She has worked with both adults and children, most recently co-developing the NLM-funded HackHealth after-school program ( to help increase disadvantaged middle school students’ health-related self-efficacy and improve their digital health literacy skills.
E-mail: bstjean [at] umd [dot] edu



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Editorial history

Received 20 September 2017; revised 29 September 2017; accepted 30 September 2017.

Copyright © 2017, Courtney Douglass, Ursula Gorham, Renee F. Hill, Kelly Hoffman, Paul T. Jaeger, Gagan Jindal, and Beth St. Jean. All Rights Reserved.

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.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 10 - 2 October 2017

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.