The popular Meals on Wheels program has fallen victim to Congress’ clumsy across-the-board spending cuts called sequestration. As a result, local programs are reducing meals deliveries or putting homebound seniors on waiting lists.
It is unfortunate that the program is getting cut, especially since its budget has been frozen throughout the Obama Administration. But these cuts may be an opportunity to consider whether services such as this could be better provided by neighbors and communities rather than by government-funded programs.
I’m not arguing that these meals programs are not critically important for the well-being of seniors. They are. And I’m not arguing that the federal government doesn’t have a role in funding assistance for low-income people with chronic disease. It does.
I am arguing that, in an era of fiscal restraint, which we will be living in for the foreseeable future, scarce federal dollars should be aimed where they can be put to best use. There are some services, such as transportation and, yes, meals, that can be done perfectly well by community groups without federal dollars. In a well-managed senior services program, that would free up money for those supports that require paid assistance.
To put it more bluntly: Neighbors can cook and deliver food to their neighbors, and perhaps they should. Neighbors can’t be expected to change their neighbor’s adult diapers. That’s a role that often requires paid aides, and (for low-income people, at least) government should help pay for it.
Case in point: My synagogue has a volunteer program that serves congregants who need meals, rides, or even friendly visits (btw, not just seniors but families with newborns and young adults recovering from illness or accident).
It is all pretty simple: We have a volunteer coordinator who puts out the word that someone needs help, and we use wonderful free software called Lotsa Helping Hands to organize and schedule the volunteers.
When people need meals, members of our community may get together to cook multiple dishes in our synagogue kitchen that we freeze and deliver to those in need. Or individuals may cook and deliver a single meal.
There is no government funding and no overhead. People need help, and they get it.
Interestingly, when a local church told The Washington Post that it was losing a big chunk of its Meals on Wheels funding, local donors jumped in to fill the gap. And that is how it should be.
Senior villages perform some of the same services in more formal settings. These neighborhood-based non-profits are a way for people to come together to help one another in times of need. Most will tell you that rides are the single most requested volunteer service, and often make the difference between being able to stay at home and having to move to a residential care facility. Only some provide meals, but many more could.
Other non-profits serve the same role. Some rely on federal funding through the Older Americans Act (which finances the Meals program) but they could do just as well if local people stepped up by giving either money or time.
Depending on who is counting, sequestration means somewhere between 4 million and 19 million meals won’t be delivered this year. And the Meals on Wheels Assn. estimates that even before the budget cuts, nearly 6 million hungry seniors were not being served by the program.
This year’s budget cuts were not an anomaly. They are a window into the future. Congress may restore some funding for the Meals on Wheels program for next year, but it will still fall far short of what is needed. Counting on federal dollars that almost surely will not be there is not a strategy.
That means that even in the best case, communities will have to pick up the slack. Advocates can try to lobby for more funding. And I wish them luck. But it might be more productive if they help local groups build a care infrastructure people need to stay at home when they are frail or confronting chronic disease.
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