Funding confusion complicates Meals on Wheels budget fight

Funding confusion complicates Meals on Wheels budget fight
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Meals on Wheels has become a flashpoint in President Trump's budget proposal, but the facts surrounding how the budget would affect the program are surprisingly elusive.

Democrats have piled onto administration officials, demanding to know why funding for Meals on Wheels, the country's oldest and largest nutritional support program for seniors, would be cut.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersCarter Page warrant reflects attack on our civil liberties Sanders advises Ocasio-Cortez: Keep doing what you've been doing Bernie Sanders mocks Trump: ‘He could change his mind tomorrow’ MORE (I-Vt.), for example, engaged in a heated altercation with White House budget director Mick Mulvaney on the subject, demanding an explanation for the cuts.

“You're going to throw seniors in the state of Wyoming or the state of Vermont off the Meals on Wheels program, maybe the one nutritious program that they get a day,” Sanders said.

But Trump administration officials maintain that the program would be left largely untouched.

Throughout his testimony at budget hearings this week, Mulvaney said that Meals on Wheels funding “is not reduced at all,” that one of the eliminated grants — the community development block grant — cuts it “maximum three percent,” and that the same program “is a program that accounts for less than one percent” of Meals on Wheels funding.

There was also disagreement over whether or not there was a $3 million cut in the main source of federal funding to the program.

The myriad disputes about how the Trump budget would affect Meals on Wheels are driven by confusion, both inside and outside the food organization, over how much money Meals on Wheels receives from the government.

Meals on Wheels is a membership organization, with 5,000 community-based programs that provide services to seniors. Though the membership organization gets a small amount of federal funding ($248,000 in 2015, about 3 percent of its operating budget), the broader network that actually provides services is a diffuse group of organizations with varied sources of funding.

Together, they spend $1.46 billion, 35 percent of which comes from one source of federal funding: the Older Americans Act nutrition program administered by the Health and Human Services Department.

Though the Trump budget proposed cutting the HHS budget by 16 percent, it only cut $3 million from the OAA.

The other 65 percent comes from a variety of sources: private and corporate donations, foundations and three block grant programs — the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) and the Community Service Block Grant (CSBG).

The Trump budget proposes eliminating all three.

The problem is that nobody has any idea exactly how those grants are spent across the 50 states, because there is no repository for collecting and compiling all the data.

The Trump administration knows it is pulling $3 billion in funding for CDBG, $1.3 billion for SSBG and $713 million for the CSBG, but it doesn’t really know how much of that ends up at Meals on Wheels.

Its best estimate, according to a senior Office of Management and Budget official, is that no more than $45 million from CDBG goes to Meals on Wheels, which would be equivalent to roughly 3 percent of its annual budget, and is the source of Mulvaney’s 3 percent figure — the 1 percent figure he cited at a separate hearing was just wrong, according to the OMB official.

If the total block grant funding added up to $45 million, that would mean a 3 percent cut in Meals on Wheels' overall funding, but an 8 percent cut in the federal contribution to the programs.

But OMB has no estimates for the SSBG or CSBG programs, and even the CDBG estimate is an approximation.

Interestingly, not even Meals on Wheels knows how much of its funding comes from those grants. Still, the organization recently surveyed the providers and found that a quarter of them receive some level of funding from CDBG, a 10th receive funding from SSBG and a 10th receive funding from CSBG.

“Some of these programs rely heavily on the block grant funding,” said Meals on Wheels America President and CEO Ellie Hollander.

Even if the main source of federal funds remains untouched, she said, several local Meals on Wheels programs could be hurt by the block grant elimination.

Then there’s the question of the missing $3 million from the OAA.

The White House intended to leave the 2018 funding at the same levels as 2017, and when the budget was being built, it used the figures from the continuing resolution on which the government was running, the OMB official said.

When the final 2017 spending bill passed in early May, however, an extra $3 million was added to the program during one of the late-night dealmaking sessions. That extra $3 million, the official said, was not added back into the budget proposal.