Meals on Wheels donations spike: Is Trump making America care again?

In the short time since the election, progressive causes such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood, as well as investigative journalism organizations, have seen unprecedented public support. 

Diane Bondareff/AP/File
Alexandra Barlas, a member of Encore Senior Center, poses with Real Housewife of New York Kristen Taekman during a 2015 event with King Digital Entertainment and City Meals on Wheels.

President Trump is changing America in at least one easily measurable way, and it has nothing to do with any of his campaign promises.

When the administration’s so-called “skinny budget” blueprint came out on Thursday, cuts threatening the Meals on Wheels program in particular caught the country’s attention. The proposal is already facing bipartisan opposition, but that isn’t stopping people from supporting Meals on Wheels themselves, resulting in a donation spike. Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have seen similar charity since the election, making this civic-minded giving just the latest example of a more engaged population.

The budget proposal also featured cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institute of Health, and National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, among other domestic programs, but the loudest public outcry has focused on the Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) program.

This little-known federal program, which gives states funding for community projects, sparked a backlash against its potential to affect a universally sympathetic population: the millions of elderly who rely on the Meals on Wheels program for food.

Reports of the program’s certain demise are premature. As The Christian Science Monitor reported on Friday, only a few communities rely directly on CDBGs to fund Meals on Wheels, which gets most of its money from private donations and the Department of Health and Human Services, although that’s also on the chopping block.

“The problem with a skinny budget is it is lean on details. So, 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, which in turn saves billions of dollars in reduced health care expenses,” said Ellie Hollander, president and chief executive officer of Meals on Wheels America.

But people aren’t taking any chances on letting seniors go hungry. The same day the government proposed the budget, Meals on Wheels saw donations surge to 50 times the usual daily rate, and volunteer signups spiked to five times normal levels.

"The good news is that it has rallied folks around the cause and reminded folks that they can't really take these kinds of services for granted," Patrick Rowan, executive director of Metro Meals on Wheels, said to CNN. "It's reassuring that the public has stepped up."

Thursday wasn’t the first time the administration’s actions have prompted people to open their wallets. Progressive causes from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to Planned Parenthood have already seen donations smash records.

After the travel ban went into effect, prompting demonstrations at airports across the country, more than $24 million flooded into the ACLU in a matter of days.

Its typical level of support? $3.5 million. For all of 2015.

ACLU membership passed one million, and the group was able to hire over a hundred new lawyers.

During last year’s holiday season, Planned Parenthood enjoyed a similar donation boom, receiving more than $300,000 in the six weeks following the election, and 70 percent from first-time givers. Even local organizations benefited from the upswell.

“This is always our big time of year, but this year it’s huge,” Loretta Prescott, development director for the Immigration Legal Advocacy Project in Maine told The Guardian. “Instead of giving gifts, people are making donations to causes they believe in.”

Media organizations proved popular targets for support as well. The New York Times announced a quadrupling in new subscriptions, and The Atlantic reported subscriptions up 160 percent in the wake of the election.

But the real winner may have been ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom specializing in investigative reporting. President Richard Tofel reported donations at ten times their regular rate in the days after the election. Then Jon Oliver endorsed them on his weekly comedy news show.

“The Oliver show took it to yet another level,” Mr. Tofel told NeimanLab.

While some on the left balk at the thought of living under an administration that doesn’t share many of their values, others look to history for examples of times non-governmental advocacy groups took it upon themselves to bring about change.

"Women shook the gates of the White House for the vote. The NAACP, from its founding on, brought lawsuits to force the government to live up to the promises of the Constitution," writes Margaret Groarke, a professor of government at Manhattan College, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor.

"Many of the campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement were designed to force the Federal government to make law, or enforce the law, so as to protect the constitutional rights of African-Americans," she notes.

With donation and membership records being broken left and right, there’s little doubt that Mr. Trump’s presidency is having a galvanizing effect on charity, at least for progressive causes and endangered social programs like Meals on Wheels. Many question how long the current level of engagement can continue, but if the ACLU is any example, the groundswell has already had a transformative effect.

“Trump’s election ... set us on a new path and has allowed us to be a stronger and more nimble organization,” ACLU executive director Marielena Hincapie told the New York Times.

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