Analysis Politics

Meals on Wheels Affiliate Defends Program After GOP Dismisses Concerns About Funding Cuts

Ally Boguhn

Meals on Wheels was caught in the crosshairs of Trump’s March budget outline proposal, which contained a wish list of dramatic cuts across the federal government.

Two years ago when Ben Carson gave a speech to Meals on Wheels Plus Inc. in Abilene, Texas, the nonprofit’s executive director thought he listened to those at the event. Betty Bradley told Rewire in an interview that Carson, whose recently released White House financial disclosure forms show a payment for the speech, seemed to “understand our program as much as we had an opportunity to explain it to him” at the organization’s 40th Anniversary event.

But when Fox News’ Neil Cavuto asked the now-secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in March whether he was “worried” about Trump’s proposed budget cuts to his agency that could negatively affect programs like Meals on Wheels, Carson seemingly dismissed it.

“Well, keep in mind that, you know, the CDBG is not the primary funder of Meals on Wheels,” said Carson, referring to the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program that some of the organizations rely on for a part of their funding.

Carson pointed to other avenues of funding and some cities where Meals on Wheels do not use CDBG funds in order to gloss over the cuts. “I think maybe the emphasis is in the wrong place there,” he said, seemingly dismissing those who criticize potential cuts to the CDBG program by focusing on the impact it could have on Meals on Wheels.

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However, Jenny Bertolette, a spokesperson for the national branch of Meals on Wheels, told CNN in March that, “It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which [local affiliates] will not be significantly and negatively impacted if the President’s budget were enacted.”

Like other programs designed to help vulnerable populations, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice program, Meals on Wheels was caught in the crosshairs of Trump’s March budget outline proposal, which contained a wish list of dramatic cuts across the federal government. Among the proposals was the elimination of HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Program.

That program “works to ensure decent affordable housing, to provide services to the most vulnerable in our communities, and to create jobs through the expansion and retention of businesses,” according to HUD’s website. It currently receives $3 billion per year, and as Office of Management and as Budget Director Mick Mulvaney himself has noted, a portion of that money goes to some Meals on Wheels programs across the country.

Congress reached a bipartisan agreement later signed by President Donald Trump in early May on a spending bill to fund the federal government through September that notably excluded many of the lofty and controversial demands made in Trump’s budget outline earlier in the year, including the CDBG program.

While that deal funds the government until the fall, Trump has already suggested there should be a shutdown when negotiations are back on the table if that is what it takes for Republicans to push through their agenda. The administration will reportedly release a full outline of Trump’s budget proposals for Fiscal Year 2018 on May 22, according to Roll Call, which will include “$800 billion in cuts.”

The Meals on Wheels in Abilene doesn’t rely on HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Program for funding, but many other Meals on Wheels organizations in the state of Texas do. Bradley said that in Abilene, “that funding is used to provide low-income housing for individuals and families,” so while a proposed cut to the program may not directly affect her organization, “it could be devastating to a good number of our clients.” She noted that these sorts of cuts may add additional pressure to local nonprofit organizations if those that had previously relied on those funds are forced to make up the difference through community contributions, as “there’s only so many dollars that people have to share with nonprofits.”

Meals on Wheels Plus, Inc. served over 300,000 meals to the elderly and those with disabilities from September 2015 to August 2016, according to Bradley, and currently has about 1,200 clients enrolled in the program. Anybody over the age of 60 who needs the services, or anybody over the age of 18 with a disability is eligible for the program.

But serving meals is far from all the Abilene organization does.

In addition to providing meals, volunteers also give wellness and safety checks. “Occasionally a volunteer will find somebody who has fallen and maybe broken a hip, or maybe just can’t get up,” said Bradley. “We’ve found people in diabetic comas. We found a few people dead in their home. So it’s a safety check.”

The organization also has programs that provide some clients with library books, food for pets, and groceries, Bradley told Rewire.

While Meals on Wheels Plus, Inc. doesn’t fully depend on the HUD program targeted by the Trump budget, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get any funding from government. According to Bradley, about 45 percent of the organization’s $2.1 million budget comes from state and federal funds. The rest of the funding comes from fundraising and the community.

Bradley described herself as having been “shocked” by Mulvaney’s characterization in a March press briefing of CDBGs and seemingly by extension Meals on Wheel programs.

Mulvaney said that CDBG programs had been identified “by the second Bush administration as ones that were just not showing any results.”

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

“We’re $20 trillion in debt, we’re going to spend money, we’re going to spend a lot of money, but we’re not going to spend it on programs that cannot show that they actually deliver the promises that we’ve made to people.”

“The program does work,” said Bradley of Meals on Wheels, who went on to describe the changes program volunteers see in the community members they serve. “There are people that when we sign them up to receive meals maybe for instance they are very shaky, have trouble answering simple questions, have trouble standing. And by getting a balanced meal even just five days a week, noon Monday through Friday, you go back and visit them three, four, five months later and you will sometimes see somebody that’s very different. Somebody that has got more strength, is able to answer questions, is more upbeat; they’ve had some social interactions, they’ve been eating balanced meals.”

Nationally, one in six seniors deal with hunger according to Meals on Wheels America. Of those served across the country, 64 percent are women and 38 percent are living in poverty.

“And so, Meals on Wheels programs definitely work and we see that over and over again,” Bradley continued. “I’ve been doing this since 1975 and there’s countless times when you’ve seen somebody’s life has improved. Their quality of life, their health has improved or at least they are able to maintain their health and remain independent in their own home much longer.”

Bradley concluded the interview with a plea to Congress to consider the good programs like hers provide when considering the budget.

“We realize that as Congress works on the budget, that the funding we do receive from the federal budget could be on the chopping block, and that is a concern,” said Bradley, speaking before the May budget deal was reached. “Because … there is more than one funding source of different meal programs receive, we’re really hopeful that our representatives in Congress will be aware that they can really help someone for very little money in the overall scheme of things.”

“It’s much cheaper to provide home-delivered meals than for somebody to have to enter the hospital and be in the hospital for a couple of days, go to the emergency room, and most certainly, helping keep them out of nursing homes,” Bradley noted. “It’s an investment that saves taxpayer money.”

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