By Sarah Paterson
That number represents the current percentage of the national budget being spent on the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEA and NEH)—$292 million out of $3.67 trillion of national spending. If it seems like a small number now, it may get even smaller.
On July 22, the House Appropriations Committee presented the Interior and Environment bill for the 2014 fiscal year that contained a 49 percent reduction of the NEA and NEH budgets. After the cuts, the NEA and NEH would each operate under a budget of $75 million per year.
The NEA and NEH are often subjects of political ire. Created in 1965, they have been challenged as unnecessary nearly every decade since, and have faced budgetary cuts and outright abolition. Within the last three years, budgets for the NEA and NEH have been reduced by 19 percent.
Bills like the recent Appropriations Committee budget suggest that Americans prioritize safety and job creation over the education and cultural enrichment of Americans. As such, funding for arts, education, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, and various public land and cultural conservation programs have been significantly reduced or completely eliminated.
Stephen Kidd, executive director for the National Humanities Alliance, sees budget reductions as devastating to an already small program.
“The National Endowment for the Humanities is the single most important source of funding for humanities projects in the United States, and as such, it is a critical engine for the building blocks of humanities work: preservation, research, teaching, and public programs,” Kidd said. “The proposed 49 percent cut would cause important research, teaching, preservation, and public programming projects to stall.”
Though funding for federal programs seems irrelevant for your average student, cuts to the NEH have the potential to impact college students and faculty at the individual level. According to Phi Beta Kappa Secretary John Churchill, the proposed budget could be “catastrophic” for research and faculty development.
“[The NEH budget] supports humanities research that results in books and articles across the full range of humanities disciplines. So academic research would suffer even more,” Churchill said. “Challenge Grants and Education grants go to support faculty development—for retraining humanities faculty in colleges and universities, helping them develop new courses and curricula, and so on. Digital Humanities and Preservation and Access do things like digitizing museum collections, digitizing newspaper archives, and so on. [This is] critical stuff for maintaining the raw material of humanities scholarship.”
But funding for the humanities doesn’t just benefit college students and professional academics. Kidd believes that national support of the humanities leads to stronger communities, increased global engagement, economic growth, and greater opportunity for all Americans. The loss of funding, he says, would have widespread consequences.
“[The cuts] would lead to the loss of artifacts of our cultural heritage, many fewer opportunities for secondary school teachers to gain expertise in the subjects they teach, and fewer discoveries gained through research,” Kidd said. “The state humanities councils that reach nearly every county in the country would have to lay off staff members and eliminate many programs such as those that promote family literacy and broaden access to educational opportunities for those living near the poverty line.”
Recent public projects funded by the NEH include restoring buildings at Monticello, including slave quarters; documentaries by and about women to air on PBS about abolitionists, women in WWII, and victims of sexual violence during wartime in the Balkans; efforts to teach Native American languages and cultural preservation of Native American communities; and support for the Digital Public Library of America.
The House of Representatives has not yet brought the proposed FY2014 Interior and Environment bill to a vote, and it will likely be up for debate well into the fall, as the 2014 fiscal year starts on Oct. 1. Individuals can support alternative legislation, which proposes an NEH budget of $154.4 million dollars (a slight increase over the 2013 budget, and more than double the Interior bill’s allotted funding) by contacting their representatives, writing letters to local and national news outlets, and by supporting humanities efforts in their local communities.
Sarah Paterson is a junior at Elon University majoring in English with a concentration in Professional Writing and Rhetoric. Elon University is home to North Carolina’s Eta Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.