Is Meals on Wheels about to become a fatality of Trump's budget? | Jamiles Lartey

Jamiles Lartey
‘The programs don’t cost much, and cost even less to the federal government.’ Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s budget proposal is a disaster-in-waiting for America’s most vulnerable populations. The grant cuts that would imperil Meals on Wheels, a program that benefits countless seniors across the United States, are stark examples of the Republicans’ continued war on the “war on poverty”. If they are allowed to go through, seniors will pay a dramatic and unfair price – all while taxpayer dollars are squandered on swollen defense budgets and a wasteful border wall.

I worked on a Meals on Wheels program in upstate New York, and the seniors I met were always grateful for the company, however brief. I recall one especially chatty woman would never fail to let me know that I looked just like her grandson on each visit. Another man, obviously a stickler, would compare my arrival times with the other drivers and let me know when I was lagging behind on the route.

For many seniors these deliveries were the only social interaction they would have some days, and the only check on their wellness anyone would make. I fear, for some, it was likely their only proper meal as well.

Most days, it was senior volunteers delivering the meals. They routinely told me it gave them a sense of purpose and they liked helping other people in their generation. One gentleman I volunteered with, a retired teacher and recent widower, told me the program was one of the first things to get him out of the house after his wife had passed.

Those who made the program work were, it’s worth repeating, volunteers. They gave freely of their time and the funding that made the whole operation work was applied to things like the food itself, and gas and insurance for the vehicles. It made it possible for folks of modest means to get involved in their community, a little grease on the wheels of compassion and goodwill.

The programs don’t cost much, and cost even less to the federal government. That’s because the contours of the Community Development Block Grant, which partially funds meals on wheels and has been slated for defunding by Trump, were designed by conservatives. They were intended as a compromise to the “big government” war on poverty approaches taken by Lyndon Johnson in the late 1960s.

This particular block grant, developed by the Ford administration and further tweaked by Ronald Reagan, was intended to allow maximum flexibility for communities to provide assistance for poor and vulnerable populations. Bipartisan consensus also pushed virtually all CDBG programs to leverage government grants into funding from state, local and private sources.

Ironically some conservatives have turned to this fact, that as proof that the government portion wouldn’t even be missed. Writing for Forbes on Thursday Erik Sherman noted that just a small fraction of funding for the Meals on Wheels program comes from the CDBG. “If its portions of block grants were eliminated, the program wouldn’t suddenly disappear,” Sherman noted.

And on this point Sherman is correct, but here’s what his analysis misses. The senior center that hosted the meals on wheels program I relied on CDBG funds. The SeniorCorps program which recruited and managed volunteers relied on funds from the Corporation for National and Community Service, which Trump’s budget also zeroes.

There are interweaving agencies and initiatives, all relying partially on federal funds, that make programs like meals on wheels work. It’s something like a game of Jenga, and years of social disinvestment have already left the tower tilted and unsteady. Pull out that next peg and seniors are certain to pay the price.

Of course, no conservative would tell you they are against feeding hot meals to lonely seniors, or want to see them starved and without the daily company.

“It’s just not the government’s role”, they’ll tell you, and ask why, if people like these programs so much, they don’t just donate their own money and time. Let the market of philanthropy select for the best programs and weed out the waste.

And in moments like this, the suggestion doesn’t sound half bad. As meals on wheels trends online for a second day straight, surely thousands of well-meaning people will find ways to contribute to their local chapter in the coming days. It might well be a bumper year for the more than 50-year-old program.

But here’s the rub. These programs are tedious and boring to coordinate and make work. And they have to work, every single day, not just when they are trending and threatened. In a world where budget cuts are as much a feature of the Trump administration as early morning tweetstorms, attention and resources are finite. What happens when meals on wheels is no longer the cause du jour. What happens a month from now? Six months? Two years?

Without federal funding, we just won’t know.

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