U.S. Capitol Building
Credit: iStock

One of the ways Republicans have traditionally tried to get rid of federal programs that enjoy broad support from the American public is to suggest that they should be block granted to the states in order to allow them to have discretion over meeting their own constituent’s needs. Right now they are busy making those arguments in an attempt to block grant Medicaid.

In many cases block granting allows Republicans to reduce funds and then force states to make the hard choices about who gets hurt – letting them escape accountability while claiming that the outcomes demonstrate that the programs don’t work. It’s a pretty neat trick if the public let’s you pull it off.

You might have heard that yesterday Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney suggested that the Meals on Wheels program doesn’t work. While I don’t mind that this administration is taking some flack for being heartless with their budget cuts, that isn’t necessarily the case he made.

Mulvaney actually said that the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG – which some states use to fund Meals on Wheels) hasn’t shown an appreciable benefit to taxpayers. That is their rationale for eliminating the CDBG program altogether.

The whole purpose of CDBG is captured in its title:

The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), one of the longest-running programs of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, funds local community development activities such as affordable housing, anti-poverty programs, and infrastructure development. CDBG, like other block grant programs, differ from categorical grants, made for specific purposes, in that they are subject to less federal oversight and are largely used at the discretion of the state and local governments and their subgrantees.

Because state and local governments have discretion over how to spend the money, there is no central goal with which to measure their success. That is why Mulvaney can say that they “haven’t shown an appreciable benefit to taxpayers.”

During the news conference yesterday, both Meals on Wheels and after-school programs were brought up as examples of programs funded by CDBG. Most of the funds are actually spent, as the description above suggests, on things like housing and infrastructure development. So there is a huge range of potential outcomes to measure.

When I was the executive director of a nonprofit, we used a small CDBG allocation to provide pre-court diversion services for youth who were first-time offenders. As an example of the outcome we produced, over a 20 year period, our six month recidivism rate for youth who completed the program hovered around 5%. But that is a far cry from the number of elders who can stay in their own homes because they receive meals, or the number of homeless people housed. In other words, it’s not that these programs don’t show an appreciable benefit, it’s that, due to the discretion allowed over how to spend the money, outcomes vary in terms of what they are trying to accomplish.

In commenting on the blowback Mulvaney has gotten about this Kevin Drum notes correctly that only a tiny portion of CDBG funds are spent on Meals on Wheels and that it is only a small part of what funds that program. That was affirmed by a statement from Meals on Wheels. But my experience validates that this is often how these kinds of efforts are funded:

This successful public-private partnership, for which every federal dollar is matched with about three dollars from other sources, enables at-risk seniors to stay out of more expensive healthcare settings and remain more healthy, safe and independent in their own homes, where they want to be. After all, we can provide a senior with Meals on Wheels for an entire year for roughly the same cost of an average one-day stay in the hospital or ten days in a nursing home.

Much of the patchwork that is our safety net at the local level consists of relatively small infusions of government funds stitched together in public-private partnerships designed to prevent huge public expenditures that would otherwise be incurred. Meals on Wheels is one example of how that happens and a loss of funding from one source puts the whole system at risk.

We should be having a discussion about whether or not we want the safety net which addresses the needs of vulnerable Americans to rest on such a shaky foundation. But beyond that, this is a perfect example of what Republicans try to do once federal programs are block granted to the states.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.