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“Federally assisted programs like Meals on Wheels would be able to serve 4 million fewer meals to seniors.”

— White House fact sheet on the impact of sequestration

“If you address the tax expenditure issue, we’ll limit the amount of deductions people can take, you will have a fairer tax system, and you will not have to then take food out of the mouths of seniors on Meals on Wheels and all of the other community-oriented initiatives that we as Americans take pride in.”

— House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Feb. 28, 2013

Google “meals on wheels” and “sequester,” and you’ll see that this has been one of the White House’s most successful pitches to reporters about the dangers of the automatic spending cuts that take effect Friday.

“Spending cuts could derail Meals on Wheels”

USA Today

“Sequestration Cuts Will Stall Meals On Wheels”

Huffington Post

“Meals on Wheels Would be Hit by Sequester”

NBC Bay Area

“Meals on Wheels affected if budget cuts deal fails”

Minnesota Public Radio

“Federal budget cuts could impact local Meals on Wheels program”

12 News Now, Texas

It’s obviously an irresistible story line for journalists. But let’s look deeper at the administration’s estimate and what it means. There’s less than meets the eye when you scratch the surface.

The Facts

Federal dollars are an important part of free meals for seniors, but it is just part of the overall funding picture. The Meals on Wheels Association of America says that for 2010, the most recent year available, $1.4 billion was spent on such meals. About 37 percent came from Older Americans Act funds — the primary vehicle for such aid from the federal government — and the rest came from other public and private sources.

On one level, the administration could argue that its 4 million figure is conservative. The Meals on Wheels Association put out an estimate of 19 million fewer meals.

Mary McNamara, a spokeswoman, said the organization applied a 5.1 percent cut against the budget for all Older Americans Act nutrition programs. The organization then calculated the loss of federal dollars per state and came up with a figure of 19 million fewer meals. She wasn’t sure why the administration estimate is so different.

Here’s an explanation we received from the Department of Health and Human Services:

The Administration for Community Living estimated the number of meals served through the Elderly Nutrition Services Programs that would be impacted by sequestration through a model that uses national, historic trends in program expenditures from federal, state and local program funding, program expenditures per meal, and inflation. The estimate is based on past performance of the programs and does not make assumptions regarding atypical practices that states may engage in response to a mid- to late-year change in their federal funding.

In other words, like some of the other sequester numbers we have examined this week, this 4 million figure is a guesstimate. (We have requested the actual numbers used in this calculation, and if they are forthcoming, we will update this column.) Moreover, the government currently funds some 219 million meals, according to the administration’s 2013 budget justification, so the reduction amounts to less than 2 percent of the total.

Under the administration’s budgets, in fact, funding for senior meals has been flat since 2010, generally resulting in fewer meals.

HHS’s reference to “atypical practices” means that the administration has no idea whether the suppliers of these meals will make up the shortfall in other ways; it just assumes that they have no alternative sources of funding.

But if you look deeply in the news reports, there are indications that at least for the rest of the 2013 fiscal year, providers have back-up resources.

For instance, in St. Cloud, Minn., officials at Catholic Charities said “they will use excess funds from previous years to get them through December.” The same story is in the Duluth area: officials had “received word that with the help of some hold-over funding from 2012, it looks like Meals on Wheels and senior dining programs throughout the seven-county region served by [the] agency should be able to continue unabated until the end of this calendar year.”

There could be other tools as well. States receive a flexible source of funding known as the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG). Whereas only a relatively small portion is currently used for meals for seniors, states would have broad discretion to shift those funds as needed. “We would like to see more states utilize SSBG dollars to support Senior Nutrition Programs,” McNamara said.

Meals on wheels is an easy target for budget-cut stories. In fact, Pelosi once earned Four Pinocchios for especially egregious rhetoric about the Republicans allegedly slashing the program. But that doesn’t excuse such behavior by politicians.

The Pinocchio Test

The administration may rue the day that it issued so many scary statistics with such specificity. If sequestration remains in effect for the rest of the fiscal year, reporters will certainly attempt to check whether the administration’s predictions came close to reality.

In the case of meals for seniors, the administration did not even bother with the usual “as much as” modifier. It simply asserted that 4 million meals will disappear. Given that federal funding is just one-third of the funding source, and the 4 million figure represents a relatively small part of the program, it is hard at this point to justify such specificity.

Two Pinocchios

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