Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, March 16, responded to questions about Meals on Wheels and after-school programs. (Reuters)

“We want to give you money for programs that don’t work. I can’t defend that anymore.”
— White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, press briefing, March 16

There has been a lot of media criticism of Mulvaney for suggesting that the popular Meals on Wheels program does not work or is “just not showing results.”

But, because of tweets and snippets posted on the Web, it appears his comments have been misinterpreted. He was not talking about Meals on Wheels, but about a program in the Housing and Urban Development Department known as CDBG, or community development block grants.

There are some scattered municipalities that use some of their CDBG funds to help fund nutrition programs for the elderly. But most of the funding for Meals on Wheels comes from a separate program run out of the Health and Human Services Department, said Jenny Bertolette, vice president of communications at Meals on Wheels.

“The FY 2016 budget level for the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program (through HHS) was $834,753,000,” she said. “The 2017 ask (proposed by the House) is $848,557,000.”

The Obama administration’s budget justification said that this funding would “allow states to provide a total of 205 million meals to over 2 million older Americans nationwide.”

The Trump administration has proposed a 17.9 percent cut in funding for HHS, but it has provided no detail on whether that would also impact the Administration for Community Living, which funds nutrition programs for the elderly. Bertolette said it was fair to assume there would be an impact.

As for the CDBG, Bertolette said, “There’s no nationwide breakdown of how these block grants are allocated within each state. Some programs will be hit hard and some might not be affected. It really depends on the state.” She pointed to a provider in Ypsilanti, Mich., that she said faced a 30 percent cut in funding.

Alison Foreman, the director of Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels, said while government funding made up about 30 percent of its funds, almost all of that came from the HHS program. But “last year Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development did issue pass-through dollars to YMOW for vehicle updates and staff support,” she said.

“We realize it is unclear what the president’s proposal means for nutrition and aging programs,” Foreman said in an email. “The overall proposed funding cut of 17.9 percent for HHS, which includes the Older Americans Act funding for aging programs, is concerning.”

Here is the full quote by Mulvaney at the press briefing. He made his remarks in response to a question from a reporter who asserted the cuts to CDBG could affect thousands of elderly people in Texas.

“As you know, or I think you know, that Meals on Wheels is not a federal program. It’s part of that community — the CDBG — the block grants that we give to the states. And then many states make the decision to use that money on Meals on Wheels.

Here’s what I can tell you about CDBGs because that’s what we fund — right? — is that we spend $150 billion on those programs since the 1970s. The CDBGs have been identified as programs since I believe the first — actually, the second Bush administration as ones that were just not showing any results. We can’t do that anymore. We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good. And Meals on Wheels sounds great — again, that’s a state decision to fund that particular portion to. 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. We cannot defend that anymore. We’re $20 trillion in debt. We’re going to spend money, we’re going to spend a lot of money, but we’re not going to spend it on programs that cannot show that they actually deliver the promises that we’ve made to people.”

At another point in the briefing, Mulvaney reiterated these points about CDBG, and whether some funds were used by Meals on Wheels.

“My understanding of Meals on Wheels is that that is a state determination.  The federal government doesn’t directly fund that; it funds the central Community Development Block Grants, the CDBGs.  And some states choose to take the money and do Meals on Wheels.  Other states and localities might choose to do something else with them.  We look at the CDBGs.  And when we do that, we look at this as $150 billion spent over 40 years, without the appreciable benefits to show for that type of taxpayer expenditure.  And that’s why we have the reduction.”

It’s clear from the context that Mulvaney is referring to CBDG. Reason, a libertarian magazine, has written a number of  reports that have criticized the program for waste and corruption. Mulvaney certainly could have taken the opportunity to explain that Meals on Wheels is mainly funded through HHS, but he did not do so. (A spreadsheet on the HUD website indicates that about one percent of CDBG funds goes to “senior services” and 0.17 percent goes to “food banks.” No specific breakdown is given for Meals on Wheels.)

Later in the briefing, Mulvaney was asked about after-school programs that might be cut. “They’re supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home get fed so they do better in school,” he said. “Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that. There’s no demonstrable evidence of actually helping results, helping kids do better in school.”

That’s certainly debatable, but he was not talking about Meals on Wheels.

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For the Record
"We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good. And Meals on Wheels sounds great."
at a press briefing, Washington, D.C.
Thursday, March 16, 2017