How Trump Budget Would Be ‘Devastating’ To Meals On Wheels

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The impact of federal Community Development Block Grants isn’t just about feeding seniors, a local Meals on Wheels director says.

LAKEWOOD, NJ — Every day in Ocean County, roughly 1,000 senior citizens are fed a nutrious meal that they might otherwise not have thanks to federal funding that assists the Meals on Wheels program.

With those meals go interactions — with volunteers who deliver meals to hundreds who are homebound, and with workers at local senior centers — that help keep tabs on those seniors, making sure they are safe and healthy, said Jim Sigurdson, executive director of Community Services Inc. of Ocean County, also known as Meals on Wheels of Ocean County.

The federal funding that aids Meals on Wheels of Ocean County and thousands of programs like it that serve senior citizens across the country could be gone next year, however; the $3 billion federal Community Development Block Grant program is one of the items proposed for elimination under President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 federal budget.

“Every single person will be impacted by this,” Sigurdson said. “There’s lots of programs that help residents, especially those who are socially isolated and vulnerable” that are assisted through the CBDG programs.

The CDBG program is one of dozens of cuts proposed in the “America First, A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again” document that gives preliminary details on Trump’s 2018 budget.

The Community Development Block Grant program, which falls under the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, is funding distributed to the states, which then distribute it in a variety of ways. The Meals on Wheels program is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the program, but it is far from the only one. In Ocean County, CDBG funds have helped hundreds of residents who were deeply affected by the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, aided organizations that assist victims of domestic violence and helped at-risk teenagers. It funds crisis hotlines and housing programs and programs for the disabled.

In Ocean County, one of the greatest impacts would be on its seniors; nearly 28 percent of Ocean County’s more than 588,000 residents in 2015 were age 60 or older, according to Census information. Of that, more than 20,000 Ocean County seniors are 85 or older, according to Ocean County officials.

Brick Township, which annually announces grants to local organizations that help those in need, distributed CDBG funding it received to The Arc of Ocean County, which helps children and adults who have developmental disabilities, and Northern Ocean Habitat for Humanity, a program that helps low-income families gain housing.

There has been $150 billion spent nationwide through CDBG funding since 1970s, Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, said during Thursday’s televised White House press briefing.

“(CDBG) has been identified since the second Bush administration as not showing any results,” Mulvaney said. “We’re not going to spend money on programs that cannot show they deliver the promises we made.”

“We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good,” Mulvaney said in response to a question about the plan to cut the funding. Mulvaney said the choice to fund Meals on Wheels is a state-level decision, not federal.

The budget document says further: “The program is not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results. The Budget devolves community and economic development activities to the State and local level, and redirects Federal resources to other activities.”

It doesn’t define what results officials were seeking and Mulvaney did not provide specifics.

“We look at this as $150 billion spent over 40 years without the appreciable benefits to show for that type of taxpayer expenditure,” Mulvaney said.

“This kind of action has a ripple effect,” Sigurdson said. “It doesn’t just affect the poor; it spreads out and wreaks havoc for those who are vulnerable and frail, who don’t have the ability to fight back.”

Sigurdson said the impact of Meals on Wheels goes far beyond feeding hungry senior citizens.

“Meals on Wheels and our other services are about far more than simple nourishment,” he said. “They’re about emotional and spiritual health.”

Several studies of the program back that up. Study reports published by the National Institutes of Health found Meals on Wheels and similar programs “are key to leading a healthy, functional life and mitigating chronic health conditions,” the abstract of a 2015 study said. “The Older Americans Act Nutrition Program served 86.3 million congregate and 137.4 million home-delivered meals to 1.6 million and 850,000 older adults, respectively (2012). Congregate and home-delivered participants were older, poorer, sicker, more functionally impaired, and at a greater risk of institutionalization than the general U.S. older population,” meaning hospital care or another long-term care facility.

Meals on Wheels of Ocean County, which Sigurdson said has “an active client base of 1,800” and serves between 3,000 and 4,000 seniors in the county each year, said the meals are a symbol of hope for the recipients, both those who are homebound and those who receive meals through its congregate nutrition program. In the latter, seniors who are able to walk and who have access to transportation are fed lunch at one of eight sites throughout the county.

For the homebound, the deliveries — meals are delivered six days a week, with the Saturday delivery including a meal for Sunday — are essential, because the driver often is the only person who sees them on a regular basis.

“(The drivers) don’t just see that they’re there, but that they are safe in their homes,” he said. “We are the eyes and ears for the community at large.”

Without that, those senior citizens — who lack family support and don’t have the resources to hire health aides or have others checking on them regularly — would end up in institutions, whether it’s a long-term care facility or a hospital, where the cost of care is far higher.

The congregate programs include a social element, because it’s a group gathering with activities and the opportunity for conversation.

“Participation in home-delivered meals programs may contribute to the health and independence of older adults living in the community, especially those who are food insecure or those who are making transitions from acute, subacute, and chronic care settings to the home,” another study of the program said.

“These aren’t people who are rich” receiving these services, Sigurdson said. “These services allow these people to remain living with the independence and dignity they should have.”

“We’re going to lose money to feed people but then have to spend money for psychological and physical issues,” he said.

Sigurdson estimated Meals on Wheels of Ocean County gets about 10 percent of its budget through the CDBG grants, including funding it receives from Brick and Toms River as a result of those grants. The organization raises more than $500,000 annually, but “the county goes out of the way to assist us,” he said.

“A dollar is still a dollar,” he said. “This just means we’ll have to come up with additional money (through fundraising).”

The CDBG program provides funding for a much wider scope of programs, including welfare-to-work job training programs, housing rehabilitation, and it has been a source of funding assistance for those recovering from the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, through the CDBG Disaster Recovery Action Plan.

Ocean County officials, on the county’s website, call the CDBG program “an important source of federal funding for community development improvements.”

The annual direct grants help communities “revitalize neighborhoods, expand affordable housing and economic opportunities, and/or improve community facilities and services, principally to benefit low- and moderate-income persons,” the county website says.

“Cutting CDBG funds will be devastating,” said Brick Township Mayor John G. Ducey, who has made annual presentations on Brick’s funding awards to Meals on Wheels and other organizations. “Nonprofits are the backbone of our most vulnerable residents.”

“This is the kind of rhetoric we don’t need coming out from any administration,” Sigurdson said. “This sends a shockwave through the communities.”

“It creates a feeling of panic and fear among seniors that’s counterproductive,” Sigurdson said. “It undermines the firm understanding, knowledge and belief that we will be there tomorrow (with support for these seniors) and that creates bad feelings among these people.”

Meals are prepared for delivery to clients of Meals on Wheels of Ocean County, which serves roughly 1,000 people per day, officials said. Photo via Meals on Wheels of Ocean County Facebook page

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