Meals on Wheels, the Trump Budget, and Optics Problems

It’s being widely reported in the media that the Trump budget will cut funding for Meals for Wheels, and after school programs, among other things (the familiar assault on the Center for Public Broadcasting is also there, which in turn has brought the “Republicans are trying to murder Big Bird in cold blood” rejoinder from the left).

What is actually being proposed by the Trump administration is the slashing of the Community Development Block Grant Fund, which is worth some $3 billion. Meals on Wheels derives much of its funding from the CDBGF, which explains the media fracas about the Republican war on the old and needy.

Of course, there are a few things worth considering, chief among them the fact that the President can release whatever budget he wants, but true budget-crafting responsibility lies in the House of Representatives. Will they need to work with Trump if they want him to sign whatever budget they end up handing him? Sure. But is there need for the full-scale media panic we are currently seeing? No, and it simply seems like the media is looking for every possible opportunity it can to excoriate the Trump administration.

Much of that criticism is justified and richly deserved, and I am no great defender of Trump’s. However, if everything is deemed outrageous by the media, nothing is really that outrageous in the end, and they would better serve the American people (rather than stroking their own egos) if they reserved their harshest judgement for things that actually have a chance of really effecting meaningful, negative change.

Beyond that though is the larger question of whether or not the federal government ought to be issuing this block grant to begin with. The folks at Reason made a decent case that this particular program (like many in the federal government) suffers from a lack of oversight that simply leads to waste and bloat, that it is susceptible to corruption, and that, like many things the government devises that are meant to help people, it fails horribly in its intended mission. Many times this takes the form of what amounts to crony capitalism, where CDBG funds are used to help businesses expand operations in already economically wealthy areas.

So there is a real case to be made here that eliminating the CDBG might be good, and that a more effective way for that money to be distributed would be at the state (or even local) level (though as the Reason piece points out, this is not something that Trump is calling for). Since the money is simply being moved from the CDBG to the defense budget however, this has the effect of eliminating corruption and waste along with the programs that actually do work and help people as a result of CDBG funding (throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as it were).

But none of the various arguments about whether or not to keep the CDBG matter really, because as usual the Republican Party has an optics problem. The media is saying that the GOP is trying to starve poor old people, and the leadership seems unable to articulate how this isn’t going to happen, insisting that this is actually “compassionate,” as OMB Director Mick Mulvaney put it, to spend more money on defense and less on community programs.

To the millions of Americans who aren’t policy wonks and don’t know a block grant from a block of cheese, this probably doesn’t seem true, especially if you’re one of the people currently benefiting from such a program. It’s hard to say that buying a new Abrams tank is an act of compassion when grandma is starving up the block because funding for her dinners got cut. All politics is local after all.

What remains to be seen is how much this optics problem matters. It hasn’t seemed to matter for the Trump administration up to this point, though the left is sure to make hay of this sort of thing in the 2018 midterms (which are still 2 interminably long years away). Given the current media frenzy, it seems likely that Trump will have done something in the coming 48 hours to erase this particular story from the headlines anyway. Whatever the case, it’s clear that once again a legitimate policy discussion is being lost in a whirlpool of rhetoric and poor public relations work, and this should be wholly unsurprising.


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