USA First Look

Does Trump's budget really propose gutting Meals on Wheels?

Suggestions that the Trump budget proposed axing federal funding for the meal delivery service met sharp criticism on the internet, but the actual impact of the proposals is less clear.

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo (2nd l.), joined by Hasbro, Inc. chairman, president, and chief executive officer Brian Goldner (2nd r.), Meals on Wheels America president and CEO Ellie Hollander (r.), and Meals on Wheels Rhode Island Executive Director, Heather Amaral (c.) come together to make a special delivery of Hasbro's JOY FOR ALL Companion Pets, sitting on the table, and a nutritious meal to Ann Kondos, left, an 81-year-old Meals on Wheels client living in Providence, R.I., on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016.
Stew Milne/AP/File
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For many seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities, Meals on Wheels is a lifeline. The program serves up nutritious meals with a side of companionship.

“If it wasn’t for Meals on Wheels, I would go hungry,” Diane Burnett, a disabled woman in Los Angeles, told CBS Local, adding, “It’s security. They knock on your door to make sure you’re OK.”

The suggestion that the program’s federal funding would be axed under President Trump’s budget proposal, released on Thursday, quickly sparked internet backlash. Supporters took to Twitter to defend Meals on Wheels, suggesting that other expenditures – such as Mr. Trump’s trips to his Mar-a-Lago resort and the expense of providing security to Melania and Barron Trump in New York – be reduced instead.

Much of the controversy, it seems, was fueled by misinterpreted statements from Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. Speaking about the cuts to one program in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he repeatedly referenced Meals on Wheels, but the budget proposal in question does not, points out Washington Post Fact Checker columnist Glenn Kessler.

“We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good. And Meals on Wheels sounds great – again, that’s a state decision to fund that particular portion to,” Mulvaney said. “But to take the federal money and give it to the states and say, look, we want to give you money for programs that don’t work – I can’t defend that anymore.”

The program Mulvaney was talking about is the Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) program, a 42-year-old initiative that provides federal funding to states and gives them substantial leeway in deciding to which community projects they wish to apportion it. Much of the money goes to housing assistance, and local areas have also built community centers and funded parks, among other things.

Although they enjoy bipartisan support, the CDBGs have faced criticism from institutions like the libertarian Reason Foundation, which condemns the program’s high overhead, saying costs for administering the CDBGs run upward of 25 percent. It also says the program is insufficiently focused on combating poverty.

A number of localities, Mulvaney indicated, give the funds to their local Meals on Wheels program. But Meals on Wheels receives the bulk of its federal funding from the budget of another government agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. That means the cuts Mr. Mulvaney discussed would have a limited impact on Meals on Wheels.

The fact-checking website Snopes.com came to a similar conclusion, writing, "The national Meals on Wheels office receives the bulk of its funding from sources other than the CDBG; the effect of CBDG cuts on local Meals on Wheels groups is uncertain."

But that doesn’t necessarily mean concerns about the future of the program are entirely misplaced. The Trump administration has proposed a 17.9 percent cut to the Health and Human Services budget. While it’s not clear which programs would be affected by that funding reduction, it’s fair to assume that the Administration for Community Living, which funds nutrition programs for the elderly, would be affected, Jenny Bertolette, the vice president of communications at Meals on Wheels, told The Washington Post.

Already, Meals on Wheels says, the program is overextended. It currently delivers 23 million fewer meals annually than it did in 2005, despite growing demand from an aging population.

"While we don’t know the exact impact yet, cuts of any kind to these highly successful and leveraged programs would be a devastating blow to our ability to provide much-needed care for millions of vulnerable seniors in America," Meals on Wheels America Chief Executive Officer Ellie Hollander said in a statement.

According to Meals on Wheels, the program – which also receives state funding and donations – needs more federal dollars, not fewer. They say nutritious meals at home help cut healthcare costs and nursing home bills, potentially saving taxpayers $34 billion a year.

Congress – which controls the federal government’s purse strings – may be receptive to that argument. The House has proposed funding the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program at a level of $848,557,000, a $14 million increase over the 2016 budget, Ms. Bertolette told the Post.