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Can Volunteers And Private Donations Combat Trump’s Potential Budget Cuts?


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Back in March, President Trump put forth a skinny budget proposal that left many wondering about his priorities and methods for moving America forward. While the new leader had bulked up the defense budget ($1.4 billion to the National Nuclear Security Administration alone), many community service programs and nonprofits including Meals on Wheels saw their budgets slashed in an effort to cut costs. The current administration tried to explain these cuts as “compassionate,” with Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, claiming that these programs were “just not showing any results,” adding, “We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good. And Meals on Wheels sounds great.”

Some political pundits praised the budget as a return to fiscally conservative values, and a common argument in favor of the cuts to community programs and nonprofits was that private individuals and volunteers would step up to fill in the gaps. After all, isn’t that how a charity is supposed to work? And following Trump’s budget proposal, Meals on Wheels did see a surge in engagement, with a 500% increase in volunteers. Which is a thing that happens when people of conscience hear that a vital assistance program is in jeopardy.

Another argument made against federally funded nonprofits is that religious organizations will shoulder the cost formerly provided by the government. However, while many churches and religious institutions do focus on charitable giving, it in no way makes up for federal funding. Harvard professor Mary Jo Bane told The Atlantic:

“Religious congregations do a lot, but the scale of what they do is trivial compared to what the government does. Especially if you think about the big government programs like … food stamps and school lunches, or health services through Medicaid, what religious organizations do is teeny tiny.”

While many church members are regular givers, most of the money given goes towards the church’s own expenses, with only a fraction going to community programs. According to reports, the median yearly giving from congregations to social programs was only $1,500.

A Vital Partnership

It’s the union of the public and private funding that allows Meals on Wheels and similar programs to function and serve as many needy citizens, including thousands of veterans, as possible.

Uproxx spoke to Jenny Bertolette, the Vice President of Communication for Meals On Wheels, who explained that despite the influx of new volunteers, these proposed cuts would have devastating consequences to this and other community programs that rely on the Community Development Block Grant and the Social Services Block Grant, both of which are on the budget chopping block. “We always say, ‘If you’ve seen one Meals On Wheels program, you’ve seen one Meals On Wheels program,’ because they all are autonomous, independently operated entities, and they all have their own mix of funding sources,” Bertolette explained. “So, we could have a program that relies 90% on federal funding, and that could be a mix of these Block Grants. It can also be from our primarily funding source for our program, the Older Americans Act, which is under HHS. Then there could be a program that only relies on maybe 10% or not at all. There are all privately funded Meals On Wheels programs out there that would not be affected at all by federal funding cuts.”

According to Bertollette, while each program is different, the average Meals on Wheels program relied on government funding for 35% of the budget from the Older Americans Act, which is currently at risk with the budget proposal. Also, even before these potential cuts, Meals on Wheels was struggling to meet the current demand, serving 23 million fewer meals than they were in 2005 with long waitlists in every state.

Bertolette attributes the Meals on Wheels program’s continuing impact to the union of private and public funding that has kept it going as long as it has. “So, we have a successful private-public partnership, right. This is what we’ve built on in last 45 years, with the government and individual support of communities. These programs have been able to serve 2.4 million seniors a year. So, it’s that partnership that makes this so successful, and our concern is that folks will think that we can just make this up with individual donations, and there’s just no way.”

Bertolette also stressed the fact that while community programs need federal funding, that does not mean that private donations and the work of volunteers aren’t valid. “At Meals On Wheels America, all of the programs fundraise individually, so it’s hard to have this big aggregate number. I think people are looking for ACLU level numbers, and we didn’t even get hope to that, and we’re trying to emphasize the fact that yes, local programs need support, always, from individual funding, volunteers, all that. Being advocates. But, it will in no way replace the federal funding that we so much rely on.”

The Corporation for National and Community Service is another of the programs eliminated by Trump’s blueprint, despite 83% of voters supporting federal funding for national service, and their press secretary Samantha Jo Warfield explained the risk to Uproxx in a statement that reads, in part:

“This is disappointing news because we know that national service tackles tough problems while transforming those who serve, adding unique value to America’s nonprofits and communities in more than 50,000 locations.”

Warfield also brought up that valuable alliance between government funding and charitable contributions while explaining the impact that the Corporation for National Community Service has on communities across the country. “Through a unique public-private partnership model, national service programs are building a safer, stronger, more united America. The more than 325,000 citizens serving through AmeriCorps and Senior Corps programs are preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs, reducing crime and reviving cities, connecting returning veterans to jobs, fighting the opioid epidemic, supporting seniors to live independently and with dignity, making college more accessible and affordable, and helping Americans rebuild their lives following a disaster, all while providing Americans an opportunity to exercise their civic duty by serving their country.”

Expanding The Definition Of “Results”

Clearly, these programs are working to meet a broad set of needs in practical ways and those efforts will be hurt if these cuts get finalized. But while the Trump administration seems as though it is obsessed with “results” that are quantified by dollars and cents, economic savings can come from focused spending that elevates people’s quality of life. In addition to making our tax base more employable, healthy, and resistant to the pull of addiction and crime.

By delivering regular meals to senior citizens, Meals on Wheels provides an invaluable service: not only are they fed, but people receive critical human interaction and independence that they could otherwise be lacking. Bertolette explains that “the senior population is set to double by 2050. The need is increasing and as the senior population is booming, there are all these other costs that come along with it. But it’s a huge burden on the healthcare system that is already struggling to keep up, and taxpayers did that, though. So, the beauty of Meals On Wheels is that we can keep seniors at home, independent and healthy and out of those more costly alternatives. That’s why we feel it’s so important for the government to do their part as well. Because it ends up paying back. It’s a win-win across the board.”

While Trump and his team may be thinking about immediate cuts that trim the budget short term, the long-term ramifications of an unhealthy citizenry far outweigh the percentage of the budget that would be “saved” with these cuts. A huge number of Americans rely on these services, and the need won’t just disappear if the budget is slashed to the bone. If we want America to truly be great, we need to ensure that our neighbors are cared for, pushing the nation towards a healthier, more compassionate future.



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Can Volunteers And Private Donations Combat Trump’s Potential Budget Cuts?

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