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Not All Tax Dollars Go To War: Here Is a Program Liberals Can Be Proud Of


Every good liberal knows the value of a functioning government. Unlike conservatives, we can actually generate long lists of benefits and services provided by government. So, it is usually with a sense of patriotic duty that liberals pay their taxes. There are always things to begrudge. How many people actually signed on to having their money go to pay for war? When we consider what we do want to pay for, we believe in public schools, healthcare, and infrastructure. We know the names of big ticket government programs like Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps), but there are also lesser-known government programs that liberals can feel good about investing their tax dollars in.

While some programs from the War on Poverty eventually fell by the wayside, many of the educational programs Johnson proposed continue to operate effectively to this day. People are familiar with many of the big name programs such as Head Start, Pell Grants, and student loans. This article focuses on the TRiO programs, sister programs to Head Start, which frequently few people have heard about. Currently, these programs face major funding cuts in the Ryan Budget, despite decades of intervention on behalf of the poor.


I shall never forget the faces of the boys and the girls…, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor. And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this Nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.” –

President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965


One of the first pieces of government legislation designed to fight poverty was the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, and in this statute, TRiO was started with the proposal of an educational outreach program for high schools students called Project Upward Bound. Along with Upward Bound, the Economic Opportunity Act also passed the preschool program, Project Head Start. Both programs became immediately controversial, because there were Senators and Congress members who believed the programs were illegally promoting civil and voting rights. Educational program leaders were accused of inciting racial agitation or participating in civil rights protests. In order to reinstate funding for Head Start in the state of Mississippi, several busses of five-year old children had to go to Washington, D.C. to plead for services.

Johnson’s major postsecondary educational program was the “Higher Education Act of 1965” which focused on funding for lower income students, including grants, work-study money, and government loans. TRiO’s Talent Search, the second educational outreach program, was created as part of the Higher Education Act. In 1968, Student Support Services, which was originally known as Special Services for Disadvantaged Students, was authorized by the Higher Education Amendments and became the third in a series of educational opportunity programs. By 1969, the original three educational opportunity programs, Upward Bound, Talent Search and Student Support Services, had been created and coined “TRiO.”

Upward Bound works with high school students year round, but in the summer brings them to college campuses for six weeks of intensive academic instruction. Student Support Services serves currently enrolled college students by providing them with academic mentoring, counseling and tutoring. Evaluations of Student Support Services have shown that it has statistically positive effects on college retention, number of semester credits earned, and semester GPAs. Not bad considering that the evaluation also showed that the program was serving a lot of single parents, older students, and students with academic difficulties.

While each TRiO program focuses on students at different stages in their education ranging from middle school all the way through college, they each share the goals of reaching out to disadvantaged groups and extending them services to gain access to a college education. It is poverty reduction via upward mobility using higher education as the means. And why are the services so necessary? Only 38% of high school seniors in the lowest income quartile attempt college compared to 81% of the highest income quartile. Of those low income students who do enroll in college, only 21% finish their degree compared to 45% of upper income students.

There have been several threats to TRiO’s existence, including complete cuts to the programs proposed during the Reagan administration and later, during the second Bush administration. Nonetheless, TRiO has continued to grow and develop, adding new programs, such as Veteran’s Upward Bound until there were actually seven programs operating under the TRiO umbrella. It makes the TRiO name seem less applicable, but it has become their brand.

Over the years, the TRiO Programs have been expanded and improved to provide a wider range of services and to reach more students who need assistance. One of the key changes to TRiO came in 1980 when the programs expanded from serving only low income students to also serving first generation students—those whose parents did not have a college degree. This allowed the programs to serve more working class students. Adding first generation students was important because it moved the programs in a more inclusive direction toward looking at the origin and the impact of non-financial barriers to access and success in postsecondary education. And politically, it enabled the TRiO program to build a broader coalition in Congress, a coalition not just of poor people, but a constituency of all those who had not had opportunities for postsecondary education. Today, more than 2,900 TRIO projects currently serve more than 840,000 low-income Americans. Much like Head Start, program advocates estimate that TRiO is only able to reach a fraction of eligible participants, and would certainly benefit from expansion rather than cuts.

The Coalition on Human Needs has combed through the Ryan Budget proposal to look for proposed cuts across a range of social programs, including those with less name recognition. Not surprisingly, they found that Ryan and his fellow Republicans have proposed slashing funding to TRiO programs right alongside Head Start and every other program that assists the poor or other vulnerable populations. One of the disadvantages for smaller, less well-known programs like TRiO is that they don’t have a large number of citizen lobbyists to advocate on behalf of the program when budget negotiations take place. Program advocates appreciate any awareness of the programs that people can raise and a willingness to write legislators to ask that TRiO not receiving funding cuts is no doubt highly valued.

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