A couple of days ago the official talking point from the central newsroom beneath Times Square was that the Obamacare revision bill coming from the House of Representatives is "cruel." Then on Thursday a preliminary budget outline came down from the White House, and suddenly for yesterday and today, the new official talking point is that the proposed Trump budget outline is "immoral" and will result in "starving the elderly." Don't ask me why, but somehow a huge amount of attention seems to be focused on the so-called "Meals on Wheels" programs, a group of several thousand local organizations nationwide that provide home-delivered meals for the elderly.
Meals on Wheels is not even a federal program, and most of the many local organizations are mostly privately funded, although the feds do provide substantial funding for many of the programs. Of that federal funding, the large majority comes from something called the Older Americans Act (OAA), and a much smaller amount (if anything) comes from another program called Community Development Block Grants. A piece in National Review here says that about 35% of the overall funding for the nationwide Meals on Wheels programs comes from the OAA. The Trump budget outline did not mention anything about cutting the funding for OAA. That outline did propose to eliminate CDBG. CDBG -- funded through the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- is about a $3.26 billion per year program of no-strings-attached handouts to the states and localities to do with as they please. Although the federal government does not so direct, some of the states apparently give some small part of that money to Meals on Wheels. The Meals on Wheels programs weren't even mentioned by name in the budget outline.
Actually, do ask me why the Meals on Wheels programs are suddenly a big focus of attention in the central newsroom. This isn't difficult. The idea is to come up with something -- anything -- to declare that the budget proposal is "immoral" and to maximize the emotional impact of the blowback, all in the service of the real goal, which is to prevent any reductions in federal funding for any and all handout programs, no matter how wasteful and useless. If that's the game, accusing the administration of "immorality" and "starving the elderly" is exactly the talking point you need.
And thus we have, for example, in Time, "Trump's Budget Would Kill Funding For A Program That Feeds 2.4 Million Senior Citizens." In the Hill, we have "Trump Proposed Budget Eliminates Funds For Meals On Wheels." ("President Trump’s proposed budget blueprint eliminates funding for Meals on Wheels, a program that provides meals for the poor, elderly and veterans.") Or consider the piece from the Huffington Post titled "A Budget Is a Moral Document. The One Trump Produced Is Dark." Subtitle: "It targets the elderly and the poor." How could they be so mean and heartless! Excerpt:
A presidential budget isn’t so much a policy proposal as a statement of an administration’s moral vision for the country. The budget presented by President Donald Trump on Thursday is a document fundamentally unconcerned with the government’s role in improving the plight of its most vulnerable citizens. . . . [At a press briefing, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney discussed] the popular Meals on Wheels program, which delivers food to elderly people and others with disabilities who have trouble leaving their home. Trump’s budget calls for the program’s funding to be slashed as, Mulvaney insisted, the program doesn’t work. “We look at this as $140 billion spent over 40 years without the appreciable benefit to show for that type of expenditure,” he said. Mulvaney is just wrong ― unless you believe that feeding the indigent is of no value.
Of course, although HuffPo does what it can to confuse the issue, the $140 billion over 40 years that Mulvaney talks about refers to the Community Development Block Grant program as a whole, not to the small part of it, if any, that may go to Meals on Wheels, let alone "feeding the indigent." Does doing away with CDBG really mean that funding for Meals on Wheels will be "slashed" as HuffPo alleges? To try to get a handle on that, let's try to find out how much funding for Meals on Wheels comes from the CDBG. As a start, you can go to this link, an HUD site with the name CDBG Expenditure Reports; and there you will find a link titled "All CDBG Disbursements," which is an Excel file with a line by line breakdown of the entire amount of CDBG expenditures by year, going all the way back to FY 2001. By the way, back in 2001, the program disbursed some $4.65 billion, but by 2016 the annual total has been reduced to $3.26 billion. Go through the list of disbursements for FY 2016, and you will be hard pressed to find anything that might be going to Meals on Wheels or any other form of "feeding the indigent." The biggest items in the list comprising the $3.26 billion are for: General Program Administration ($396.5 million -- no surprise there!); Rehabilitation: Single Unit Residential ($397.5 million); Water/Sewer Improvements ($357.9 million); Street Improvements ($220.4 million); Public Services General ($120.7 million); Rehabilitation Administration ($111.6 million); and so on to smaller amounts. The only item that might conceivably contain anything for Meals on Wheels or "feeding the indigent" is something called "Food Banks," and the amount is a big $5.6 million. You read that correctly.
So all the hyperventilating over the past couple of days about the "immoral" budget and "starving the elderly" is about at most $5.6 million deeply buried in the otherwise useless $3.26 billion CDBG program? As far as I can determine, that's right.
And now that we're on this subject, why don't we look more broadly at the federal government's various nutrition programs and their effectiveness, or lack thereof. I have previously covered this subject in multiple posts, notable "Ridiculous Campaigns Of Government Self-Promotion, DOA Edition" (September 5, 2013) and "How About The Food Insecurity Scam?" (September 5, 2014).
As background, here are a few things you should know. Federal government spending on nutrition programs for the allegedly poor and needy come to well over $100 billion per year, of which the (maybe) $5.6 million buried in the CDBG grants are a puny and almost unnoticeable crumb. The biggest pieces of the nutrition programs are the food stamp or "SNAP" program, the Child Nutrition Program (CNP), and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, all of which are in the Department of Agriculture. Those three together account for over $100 billion right there. Other things like OAA add even more. The just released budget outline proposes cutting the "discretionary" portion of the Department of Agriculture budget by $4.7 billion -- but the nutrition programs aren't in the "discretionary" part. I have found no mention of any effort yet to cut those programs.
Although almost the entire time of the Obama administration was a time of supposed economic expansion, the federal nutrition programs exploded in that period (although the numbers fell back somewhat in the last few years). The Obama Agriculture Department and state welfare agencies aggressively advertised and promoted to increase enrollment and dependency on government nutrition programs to the maximum extent possible. (See this post from April 2013 on those efforts.)
The government's main metrics to determine the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of its various nutrition programs are found in its annual surveys of what it calls "food insecurity." Here is a link to the latest survey, covering 2015.
With that background, I'm going to reprise some of the things I have said in the prior posts. From September 5, 2013:
In the 4+ Obama years, supposedly a period of economic "recovery," Food Stamp spending has about doubled, from about $40 billion to about $80 billion per year. Before Obama Food Stamp spending tended to increase during recessions but go down during recoveries. It has been widely reported that in recent years Federal and state governments have hired recruiters to pressure people to get onto Food Stamps. Also, eligibility rules have been revised, particularly to eliminate most asset restrictions (million dollar home? no problem!) and to make automatically eligible for Food Stamps all people who are eligible for any other Federal welfare program. . . .
[W]e spend $100 billion a year for nutrition assistance to the needy, with well over 50 million recipients, and yet there are still almost 50 million "food insecure" people in the United States. Isn't this saying that the existing programs, at $100+ billion per year, aren't having any effect whatsoever on alleviating the problem that you yourself define?
And from September 2014:
The whole idea of using "food insecurity" as the metric is to have something that is completely impervious to going down no matter how much is spent to solve the problem. . . . [T]he whole design of the food stamp program is that it forces poor people, who may not be the most together people in the world, to manage a monthly budget and make it last to the end of the month. Of course they are going to feel "food insecure" at some point! You could double, or triple, or quadruple the spending on food stamps, and this would still be true. . . . [T]he same organization, the DOA . . . both runs the food stamp program and puts out the "food insecurity" surveys. Don't you think they would be ashamed that their massive $80 billion per year program of food distribution (food stamps, aka SNAP) didn't ever make a dent in the problem they claimed to be trying to solve, namely "food insecurity"? Shouldn't they be saying, "OK, we blew it. It's time for somebody else to take over with a new approach"?
So here's a summary of where we are. We have an unimaginably vast federal "nutrition program" apparatus, spending well over $100 billion per year and disbursing food to over 50 million people -- something like a sixth of the population and way, way more than any possible idea of who might be fairly described as "indigent." The government creates a completely fake and fraudulent metric called "food insecurity" to gin up vast numbers of people who can falsely be claimed to be going "hungry" and to make it such that the numbers of such people can never go down no matter how much the government spends. The whole apparatus of the programs, the spending, and the metrics is in desperate need of a complete overhaul to reduce unneeded dependency on handouts and limit the programs to those who really need them. And, whatever else the Trump administration may be up to that you may or may not like, as far as can be determined from its budget outlines, it hasn't proposed to touch any of this, except maybe a figure of some $5.6 million, some of which might be going to Meals on Wheels programs.
And for this the central newsroom has gone completely nuts. I can't wait to see what happens when somebody actually tries to rationalize these ridiculously bloated programs.