Meals On Wheels: Canary in the GOP Coal Mine

The entire “skinny budget,” which somehow manages to keep lots of fat on the Pentagon budget, offered up by the current administration is a mass of mischaracterizations packed into a myriad of outright lies.  The assault on programs like Meals on Wheels is a handle providing a way to understand the totality of the right wing Individualism of the GOP. It’s there, blatantly set forth without excuse, and as emblematic of the Culture of Selfishness as can be imagined.

Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth. Psalms 71:9

“Trump’s proposed budget completely eliminates the Community Development Block Grant, which provides $3 billion every year for, according to The Washington Post, “targeted projects related to affordable housing, community development and homelessness programs.” Among those is the Meals on Wheels program, which provides meals—and vital human contact—for older, impoverished Americans, many of whom are largely home-bound. According to MOW, one in six American seniors struggles with hunger, and the organization claims it saves the nation about $34 billion a year in medical expenses by decreasing the rate of falls for seniors. The program gets the vast majority of its funding from non-government sources, but the proposal still seems unnecessarily harsh.” [Esquire]

And the rationale for all this would be what, please?

“After a reporter brought up the Meals on Wheels controversy, Mulvaney at first tried to subtly evade the question. But then, as is the wont of this administration, he fell head over glutes explaining that while Meals on Wheels “sounds great,” the administration couldn’t keep wasting money on programs like it that “don’t work.” As in, feeding the elderly apparently isn’t showing strong enough empirical benefits to merit continued federal spending by this White House, which is now deeply wedded to evidence-based policymaking.” [Slate]

There are a couple of things to unpack herein. First, empirical benefits are hard to compile without first establishing a matrix of goals.  Benefits are precisely why the program “sounds good,” the goal is to feed people, and people are being fed in their own homes. In fact some 2.4 million elderly persons are participating in the program at a total cost of $1.4 billion. 500,000 of these are veterans of our Armed Forces. A study in New York City reports that the average age of a participant was 80, meaning the person was likely born around 1937, and if the person is a veteran he or she likely saw service during the Cold War into the Vietnam Era. How goals are framed makes a difference.

If the goal is to provide 2.4 million elderly people one meal per day with a minimum of 625 calories, then we can say it’s working.  If our goal is to be that no elderly Americans go a day without a sustenance level meal for a relatively inactive person, then, no the program has too many people on waiting lists to say it’s an unqualified success.

“The need is growing rapidly, and federal funding has not kept pace. The network is already serving 23 million fewer meals now than in 2005, and waiting lists are mounting in every state. At a time when increased funding is needed, we fear that the millions of seniors who rely on us every day for a nutritious meal, safety check and visit from a volunteer will be left behind.”[MOWAm]

At this point it needs to be said that Federal funding is combined with charitable and individual donations to keep the program literally on its wheels.  Further, the only logical way to pronounce the services a failure is to absurdly assert that because seniors get hungry the next day the program isn’t meeting its goals. However, it’s crucial to take a look at the second feature of GOP rationalization for pure selfishness.

Ultra-right wing conservatives are fond of explaining that services like Meals on Wheels could be better done by local charitable institutions, ignoring the fact that as mentioned above the Federal funding is not the primary source, and IN FACT is supplementary to local charitable funding sources. Catholic leadership, for example, is wary of the implications of the administration’s budget priorities, and Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada is providing some 2,000 daily meals to those on its list. Reducing funding for this single program by one third would have a profound, and profoundly negative, impact on its services.   There are times when the intersection of governance and religious institutions illustrates the point that while private donations are the core, when the need overruns the capacity then it’s time for a little help from friends around the country.  This Cult of Selfishness only works in the ethereal world of ideological fantasies, it doesn’t deliver a meal, even one of a minimum of 625 calories, to a single individual anywhere.

What makes the skinny budget so alarmingly obnoxious is that curtailing funding for Meals on Wheels is merely illustrative of a budget building process based on what the rich want to pay, rather than on what our society needs to be a truly great nation. It is a budget process to Make American Mean Again.

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