Commentary

Outrage on Wheels

It made for great copy — irresistibly clickable and compulsively shareable. “Trump’s Budget Would Kill a Program That Feeds 2.4 Million Senior Citizens,” blared Time’s headline. “Trump Proposed Budget Eliminates Funds for Meals on Wheels,” claimed The Hill, in a piece that got 26,000 shares.

But it was false. And it wouldn’t have taken long for reporters to find and provide some needed context to the relationship between federal block grant programs, specifically Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), and the popular Meals on Wheels program.

The story that Trump’s budget would kill the Meals on Wheels program was too good to check. But it was false.

I started on the organization’s own website. From Thursday’s conversation in the press, it was easy to assume that block grant programs — CDBG and similar block grants for community services and social services — are the main source of federal funding for Meals on Wheels. Not so.

Instead, as the national site explains, the major source of federal funding for the programs, accounting for 35 percent of overall local budgets, comes through the Sixties-era Older Americans Act. (Local programs also obtain support from state and county governments, private donors, and so on.)

According to the website, cuts have not been announced in Older Americans Act funding, although the group fears that they may lie ahead.

So where do the federal block grant programs come in? Well, they give states and localities a lot of discretion on where to allocate the money. One option is to add money to supplement Meals on Wheels funding. Some do use it for that purpose.

But as Scott Shackford makes clear in his new piece for Reason, that isn’t what CDBG is mostly about. CDBG funds regularly go into pork-barrel and business-subsidy schemes with a cronyish flavor. That’s why the program has been a prime target for budget-cutters for decades, in administration after administration.

It’s important to the CDBG program’s political durability that its grantees wind up sprinkling a bit of extra money on popular programs mostly funded by other means. That way, defenders can argue that the block grants “fund programs like Meals on Wheels.”

That’s what happened in the press this week. The New York Times got things rolling by reporting that the new budget proposes “the complete elimination of the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant program, which funds popular programs like Meals on Wheels, housing assistance and other community assistance efforts.”

CNN’s Jake Tapper then boiled it down to a tweet: “On chopping block: $3 billion Community Development Block Grant program, which funds programs like Meals on Wheels.”

Meals on Wheels’s own national website, meanwhile, quotes its CEO and president Ellie Hollander being appropriately cautious and conditional: “We don’t know the exact impact yet,” she said. Big cuts “would be a devastating blow.” According to the website, “Details on our network’s primary source of funding, the Older Americans Act, which has supported senior nutrition programs for 45 years, have not yet been released.”

Most of the major press coverage Thursday had nothing at all to say about the OAA, which would only have complicated the shock headlines. And social media burned all day with indignant posts that seemed unaware that no cuts had been announced as of yet in the main program that funds Meals on Wheels.

One reason was the press conference at which budget director Mick Mulvaney faced a host of questions about the new budget release, with Peter Alexander of NBC News pressing him especially hard on the aren’t-you-trying-to-cut-things-like-Meals-on-Wheels angle. Mulvaney repeatedly tried to switch the conversation over to the shortcomings of the wider CDBG program, and did not bring up the point about OAA funding at all. Amid further awkward exchanges, Mulvaney spoke about how social programs had often not been shown to have benefits. A charitable reading of his intended point was that activities funded by block grants in general often lack any proof of positive effect; a less charitable reading was that he was trying to single out Meals on Wheels in particular as an endeavor of no proven use to anyone. (A middle ground, I suppose, would have been to call his office for a clarification.) No prizes for guessing which direction the press, from MSNBC to New York magazine, chose to take for its headlines.

For many editors, “Administration wants to zero out Meals on Wheels” made good, emotionally satisfying copy — too good to check. But around the country, in coming days, thousands of persons touched by the program are likely to ask their visiting community member or supervisor whether it’s really true that they’re going to do away with the Meals on Wheels program, the way the man on TV or the lady on Facebook said. And after they hear a fuller explanation, they might decide that they trust news reports a little less.

Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.