Donald Trump

UPDATED! Seniors Won't Starve if Meals on Wheels Loses Government Grants

Most chapters get majority of funding from philanthropy, not tax dollars.


UPDATED: Scroll down for a note clarifying overall percentage of funding Meals on Wheels receives from government sources.

As Scott Shackford has noted, Donald Trump's budget blueprint calls for zeroing out the oft-abused Community Development Block Grant program, which is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The program is rife with waste, fraud, and abuse but because it also funds the popular Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to housebound seniors, well, it shouldn't be cut at all, right?

Earlier today, I received a spam email from the Democratic National Committee that read in part

There are a lot of details to parse through in the budget blueprint Donald Trump released this morning, but you can get the gist of it from one sentence:

Donald Trump is cutting Meals on Wheels, a program that delivers meals to senior citizens in need, to pay for his border wall.

But does Meals on Wheels rely on government grants to do its good work? There are hundreds of Meals on Wheels organizations around the country, so it's hard to generalize, but overwhelmingly, the groups get the majority of revenue from charitable giving, not government funds. In 2015, for instance, the national Meals on Wheels reported that government grants accounted for just 3 percent of its annual revenues of $7.5 million. Meals on Wheels for San Diego County in California says that government grants made up just 1.5 percent ($68,534) of its revenues of $4.4 million. Not all branches are so independent. Atlanta's group gets 48 percent of its revenue from government grants (none of the annual reports I looked at broke down exactly what level of government or specific program supplied the money). Many of the annual reports don't even break down revenues by source (see here) and others aren't even posted online.

The point? As Matt Welch writes, we have gotten so used to increased government spending on everything that any cut to any program is automatically cast in apocalyptic terms. As I wrote earlier today, I'm no fan of Donald Trump's budget, which actually fails to reduce net discretionary spending and ignores completely the far larger issue of "mandatory" spending on entitlements, which, along with interest on the debt, comprises about two-thirds of the federal budget. But the plain fact is that we have for years now been spending far more than we raise in taxes.

That simply can't continue indefinitely and there's every reason to believe that massive, persistent deficits that are covered by continual increases in national debt tamps down economic growth. Despite all manner of attempts to goose tax revenue upwards, it's exceptionally rare when the feds can squeeze more than about 18 percent of GDP out of us for any length of time. Simply put, we need a government that spends less and does less. And that means that not all programs, even ones that do good work, can or should be paid for out of taxes. In many cities, Meals on Wheels would barely be affected by losing all federal grants. In others, the local citizens (and corporations and charities such as The United Way) would need to step in to fill the void. That's hardly the worst possible outcome—can Atlanta not really feed its poor senior population via philanthropy?—and it certainly shouldn't stop Americans from coming to terms with basic fiscal realities.

The problem with Trump's budget plan is that it spends exactly the same amount on discretionary outlays as President Obama's did—right around $1.1 trillion. The only difference is that what Trump subtracts from non-defense programs, he plows back into the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. That's not progress and it's not even good politics. It would be better to put the military on a diet along with the rest of the government and explain exactly why all agencies should be doing more with less.

UPDATED: Here's a statement from Meals on Wheels America, the national coordinating group for the service, on federal funding.

The nationwide Meals on Wheels network, comprised of 5,000, local, community-based programs, receives 35% of its total funding for the provision of congregate and home-delivered meals from the federal government through the Older Americans Act, administered by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Community Living. Other federal funding sources that support Meals on Wheels program operations may include the Community Development Block Grant, Community Services Block Grant or the Social Services Block Grant. In addition, programs rely on contributions from state or local governments, private donations and other resources to cover the rest, demonstrating one of the best examples of a successful public-private partnership. Meals on Wheels America, the largest and oldest national organization representing senior nutrition programs across the country, receives only 3% of its funding from the government, specifically to run the National Research Center on Nutrition and Aging.