You knock on a door. It takes a minute. Eventually the door opens. A face, lined with age, spreads into a smile.
You enter with food. You ask, “Where would you like it?” The dwelling may be tidy, messy, warm or cold. But one thing is always the same: The person inside is elderly, grateful, frail in some way.
And almost always alone.
This is pretty much the universal experience of Meals on Wheels (or programs like that). I’ve done them. Perhaps you have, too. They are, at their core, the oldest form of charity. Giving food to those who need it.
Meals on Wheels was in a rare location last week: the news. President Donald Trump’s budget proposal seeks major cuts to federal programs, including wiping out the Community Development Block Grants, which, among other things, allow states to partly fund Meals on Wheels.
“We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good. And Meals on Wheels sounds great…” budget director Mick Mulvaney said in a news briefing. But “to take the federal money and give it to the states and say, look, we want to give you money for programs that don’t work — I can’t defend that anymore.”
Mulvaney also lamented that the government has spent $150 billion on CDBGs “since the 1970s” and that they’re “just not showing any results” and reminded the media that “we’re $20 trillion in debt.”
Wow. Who knew a plate of chicken and broccoli was sinking the country?
A concern for everyone
A couple of facts. We are not $20 trillion in debt because of Meals on Wheels — or the CDBG. Mulvaney’s number of $150 billion “since the 1970s” sounds big, until you realize that averages about $3.6 billion a year. By comparison, nearly $7 billion was spent on the 2016 election. So electing the politicians who’ll vote on this budget costs way more than the old, young, poor or hungry who might lose out because of it.
Besides, the entire cost of the CDBG since the 1970s — 42 years worth — is less than a quarter of what we’ll shell out this year alone — this year alone! — on military spending (over $600 billion.)
Now. The fine print on Meals on Wheels is that it gets a good deal of funding from sources besides the CDBG, particularly the Department of Health and Human Services. The Trump administration has also proposed cutting that agency (by 18%) so it’s likely Meals and Wheels will be trimmed there as well.
Still, critics have leaped to point out that Trump’s budget would not, in itself, eliminate Meals on Wheels. Save your voices.
I just did. But whatever the actual cuts, they’ll come at a time when the program needs more funding, not less, when the waiting lists are already long, when America’s elderly population is expected to double by 2050.
And what’s more alarming than the actual dollars was Mulvaney’s seemingly coldhearted attitude to a program that literally keeps some old people alive. His willingness to even say “Meals on Wheels sounds great” and then suggest it’s part of wasteful programs that don’t work shows a tone-deafness that should concern everyone in this country, no matter who you voted for.
Priorities in the wrong place
A true measure of a society, whether run by liberals or conservatives, is how it treats its neediest citizens.
Shouldn’t elderly people, often left housebound by illness, infirmity or inability to drive, always see our most compassionate side? A hot meal for many of them is the difference in nutrition versus none. And the people bringing it are often their only companionship that day. Their only smile. Their only suggestion that somebody cares if they live or die.
How do you put a value on that? How do you judge if the program, as Mulvaney suggests, “is working?” If the same scrutiny were put to every military spend, every government study or every pork project for a home district, they’d fail the test far more stunningly.
The CDBG also provides for after-school programs, which Mulvaney similarly dismissed. “They’re supposed to help kids who…don’t get fed at home, get fed so that they do better at school,” he said. “Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that.”
Well, I can show him evidence in a converted rec center on Detroit’s east side. Hundreds of kids each week get fed there after school, and then study with tutors. And to quote Mulvaney, guess what? They’re improving in the classroom and life. I know, because a charity I founded, S.A.Y. Detroit, operates it.
But our place apparently didn’t make his list. Instead, this high-ranking government official throws feeding programs around as sounding great but not working — so let’s cut them rather than fix them. That tells you where the priorities lie.
Mulvaney later had the temerity to say that showing “a single mom in Detroit” that the government wasn’t wasting her money on things like social programs was “as compassionate as you can get.”
Wow. That’s a new twist on the word compassion. Perhaps one day when he’s old, alone and in need of a hot meal, someone will compassionately hand Mulvaney a budget proposal and say, “Chew on that.”
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.