Trump’s $5 Billion Wall Is a Waste—Here’s What We Could Spend It on Instead
The federal government shutdown has passed the two-week mark, with no end in sight. As federal workers and contractors face another week scraping by without pay, President Donald Trump on Tuesday night addressed the American public with an Oval Office speech in which he doubled down over his demand for a border wall and demonstrated his unwillingness to compromise.
But this is a fight most Americans didn’t want—and it’s over a wall most Americans don’t want, either.
Americans are largely pro-immigration; three-quarters of us believe that immigration is a good thing. And two out of three Americans think that immigration should either stay at its current level, or increase.
More importantly, one survey found that more than half of Americans don’t want a new wall, or any broad security barrier at the border.
In another survey, 40% of Americans polled chose the president backing down and accepting the $1.6 billion Democrats have already offered for border security as the most popular option for resolving the shutdown (whereas only 24% said Democrats should fund the $5 billion).
And yet the president isn’t backing down on his demand for $5 billion for an unpopular border wall. How long will he continue the shutdown that a majority of Americans don’t want over the wall that many Americans don’t want, either?
The shutdown is already the longest in more than 20 years, and 800,000 federal employees are going without pay for as long as it lasts. As unfair as that is, more than half of those employees are still required to go to work. These essential employees—who include Secret Service agents, TSA employees, and even border patrol agents—are forced to work without pay, and without knowing for how long.
Federal employees in agencies that are shut down have told of having to skip rent payments and child care payments, cut down on food, and even skip buying insulin. Other employees have taken temporary jobs, applied for unemployment, or are going into debt to get through the shutdown.
Meanwhile, the same $5 billion the president wants for a wall could be put to much better use.
According to my analysis of federal government data, it would be enough to give health insurance to 1.4 million Americans, approximately the population of New Hampshire. It could pay the salaries of 60,000 elementary school teachers in a country where teacher strikes over inadequate pay have become a repeat occurrence. Or it could double the funds dedicated annually to substance use and mental health in the midst of a raging opioid and suicide epidemic in which death rates from suicide and overdoses have doubled in the last 17 years. Any of these uses would be of more direct benefit to Americans than a bigger wall at the southern border.
Given recent statements from the president, there’s no reason to believe that compromising—say, with a deal for $2.5 billion—or even giving in to the full $5 billion would be the end of it. After all, the cost of the entire wall is expected to be closer to $25 billion.
This isn’t the way our government should work. The shutdown is unpopular, and the wall is unpopular. There’s only one logical conclusion: end the shutdown, forget about the wall, and put the money to better use.
Lindsay Koshgarian directs the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.