Trump didn’t “cut” Meals on Wheels—there’s more to the story
President Donald Trump wants to let old people die. At least that’s the hashtag (#LetThemDie) unleashed after Trump released his proposed 2018 budget framework on March 15. The 62-page document has more cuts than Edward Scissorhands, gutting funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Education, and an array of other social services. But one Game of Thrones-style budget beheading reached viral hysteria: Trump’s decimating the funding to the Meals on Wheels program.
Despite such headlines as, “#LetThemDie: ‘Heartless’ Donald Trump Blasted For Killing Meals On Wheels Funds” and “Trump’s Budget Would Kill a Program That Feeds 2.4 Million Senior Citizens,” things just aren’t that simple.
Meals on Wheels is not a federal program that operates solely on federal funds. It’s not directly targeted or even mentioned in Trump’s initial budget. Rather, Meals on Wheels is a nonprofit supporting senior nutrition programs across the country that has been boosted with federal support. The organization’s volunteers don’t just drive up to seniors’ homes with food in a van: The program also provides a regular friendly face for its 2.4 million recipients living in isolation and provides job training services to seniors.
“The budget doesn’t call for the elimination of Meals on Wheels, but we are still in that bucket,” said Debbie Case, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels San Diego.
But here’s where it gets sticky. Meals on Wheels is not one single national force. Instead, it’s a conglomerate of smaller, independent operations around the country. In total, there are more than 5,000 independent affiliates of Meals on Wheels across the United States and determining where their individual funds come from reveals an incredibly complicated web of funding via the government, grants, individual donations, and corporations.
Case explained that her local Meals on Wheels operates like many others, through a number of different funding sources. In all, 35 percent of her operating budget comes from the federal government through the Older Americans Act, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Other federal funding support may include a combination of funds via the Community Development Block Grant, Community Services Block Grant, or the Social Services Block Grant. The remaining 65 percent often comes from corporate grants, individual donors, and other means.
How Meals on Wheels could be greatly affected by the proposed budget is through various budget reductions to nondefense discretionary programs, most specifically via the complete elimination of $3 billion in funding for the Community Development Block Grant program run through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, from which many local Meals on Wheels chapters get large chunks of funding.
However, the block grant and other government funding sources only account for $248,347, or a little over 3 percent of the nonprofit’s national total funding to run the National Research Center on Nutrition and Aging.
The most significant portion of funding comes from corporate and foundation grants, accounting for more than $5 million of the national organization’s revenue in 2016. The grants work by giving states and local townships a literal block of cash that they can use as they see fit. Some communities use portions of it for improving public spaces, while a few also parse out funding to local Meals on Wheels programs.
“Until we know what the cuts are going to be, I couldn't give you a number,” Case said when asked what donation amount her local Meals on Wheels would need to stay afloat if they lost federal funding. However, the organization is already looking for more—not less—funding and is struggling to keep pace with demand. “We’re already serving 23 million less meals since 2005,” Case explained of Meals on Wheels’ national efforts.
Ellie Hollander, President and CEO of Meals on Wheels America, said in a statement that the main problem with Trump’s proposed budget is “it is lean on details,” adding, “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.”
A 2012 Brown University study echoes Hollander’s emphasis on health care savings, finding that simply investing more in delivering meals to seniors’ homes results in fewer people going to nursing homes. That’s because “low-care” seniors, those capable of living on their own with little assistance, can remain at home, thanks to funding via the Older Americans Act. This can translate into significant savings for both state and family medical costs. On average, Meals on Wheels reports it costs about $2,500 to provide a homebound senior with daily meals over one year—or roughly the same cost of an average one-day stay in the hospital or ten days in a nursing home.
The takeaway from both Hollander and Case is that we shouldn’t be so upset about whatever Trump may do. Ultimately, individual donors have more power than the government. According to Hollander, Meals on Wheels has had a tremendously successful “public-private partnership,” for which every “federal dollar is matched with about three dollars from other sources”—those sources being $5 million in corporate grants, program service fees, membership dues, and contributions from individuals and corporations.
Without question, Trump’s proposed budget is misguided at best and disgraceful at worst, and it will hurt the poor, elderly, and needy most. But to say Trump is mercilessly cutting a program that saves elderly lives is an oversimplification of the larger budget problem.
So instead of waiting around for this budget to pass, which will likely take a very long time and will absolutely take on many different forms before it is passed, what you can do right now is help Meals on Wheels stay afloat by taking part in what Case calls “the power of 7.” Donate $7, the dollar amount needed in subsidies to feed one senior one meal, and invite seven friends to do the same. Or simply volunteer your lunch hour with its Let’s Do Lunch program, which asks volunteers to deliver a quick meal and visit with a senior nearby over their lunch break. Already, the nonprofit has greatly benefited from the anti-Trump bump. Since news broke of Trump’s proposed budget, Meals on Wheels has received 50 times more donations than it normally does, and has seen a 500 percent surge in volunteer sign-ups.
Additionally, Case noted, like many other nonprofits trying to operate in the era of Trump, they need citizen’s help in contacting representatives. “We’re a boots-on-the-ground organization,” she said. “We’ve gotta get those boots on the ground to contact their federal officials and say ‘No, that’s not acceptable.’”