Hungry for help
Budget cuts will eliminate 17 million federally funded meals for seniors
As my grandmother, Ruby, started slowing down due to old age and could no longer take care of herself, she came to rely on programs aimed at helping senior citizens get by on a daily basis.
Every day at around noon, Grandma received a tasty, nutritious lunch from Meals on Wheels, a nationwide organization with more than 5,000 community programs serving meals to millions of seniors in cities around the country.
Workers with the program provided her not only with two hot meals a day, but also friendly conversation with caregivers who happily brightened her day by coming into her home and checking on her overall well-being.
Today, millions of seniors find themselves in situations similar to that of my grandmother before she passed away at age 96 in 2009, dependent on the Meals on Wheels program. But now, they could lose those meals, and the connections they provide to the outside world, as well as other programs providing senior housing and affordable transportation and health care due to automatic cuts to the federal budget.
Approved by President Obama as an incentive for Congress to trim $1.5 trillion from the federal budget over 10 years, the cuts went into effect on March 27, when the resolution that controlled federal spending expired. The proposed cuts were part of a deal struck by Democrats and Republicans last year when Obama asked Congress to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. The president formally enacted the cuts after both parties failed to come to an agreement.
Democrats wanted to raise revenue by closing tax loopholes for the rich — which only cover roughly half the mandated cuts — along with targeted reductions. Republicans demanded spending cuts with no tax increases.
And, while the politicians bicker, senior citizens go hungry
“The loss of funding for senior programs in a time of economic uncertainty and our increasing senior population is one of the tragic impacts of sequestration,” said Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard. “My hope is adjustments will be made that mitigate the negative impacts on seniors and other persons of need in our community.”
Among the sequestration cuts are a broad range of federal programs operated under the US Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging, which has provided federal funds for senior nutritional programs since 1972. That office faces a 5.1 percent cut, which would result in a $5 million cut to the program’s $40 million budget in California and up to 2 million less meals served per year.
“We estimate we would lose about 17 million meals a year nationwide,” said Mary McNamara, vice president of membership and communication for the Virginia-based Meals on Wheels Association.
“Not all of our programs are funded by federal funds. Some rely on community support through fundraisers. We are trying to figure how we are going to make up the difference in those programs being impacted by the cuts,” McNamara said. “It might be in outreach and fundraising. It could result in us buying frozen vegetables instead of fresh produce.”
But, as McNamara pointed out, “It’s not just about nutritious meals. It is also about someone coming in on them every day. That is a connection we are trying very hard to preserve.”
Federal budget cuts also mean $264 million in reductions to in-home support services, which provide health-care workers to help the elderly and people with disabilities clean, cook, run errands and take their medications.
Virgie P. Walker, president of People Coordinated Services, a senior substance abuse and youth and family services provider in Los Angeles, said the meal service keeps senior citizens out of the hospital.
“It’s a life and death situation for seniors,” Walker said. “We serve 140,000 meals a year and looking at the minimum projected cuts means [people in our programs] lose 20,000 meals a year. “If you feed a senior you help to keep them out of the hospital. If you don’t [provide the elderly with food], they can end up in urgent care, and if you look at the cost, for one day in urgent care you can feed a senior for a whole year.”
Because of limits imposed on proposed cuts to Medicare and exemptions for Social Security and other benefits seniors rely on, these programs would face smaller cuts of about 4.6 percent overall this year.
Cuts to transportation programs, which provide free rides to seniors to medical facilities, would be able to make 1.9 million fewer trips. In addition, 750,000 seniors in adult-care service programs would lose access to health care, 700,000 family care givers would be affected by a $12.6 million cut to the National Family Caregiver Support Program (NFCSP), and 3.5 million fewer community service hours — valued at $76.4 million — would be provided by caregivers under the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), according to Leading Age, an association which partners with 6,000 not-for-profit organizations dedicated to making America a better place to grow old.
“Sequestration is extremely poor fiscal policy — cutting the good with the bad, the efficient with the inefficient — and it will have very serious consequences for seniors,” Congressman Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, told the Weekly in an email message. “In California alone, we are expecting to see cuts to transportation, preventive health and in-home caregiver support programs for the elderly, and a loss of $5.4 million in funds that provide meals for needy seniors.
“My first choice would be to void the sequester entirely in favor of a more sensible plan of deficit reduction, but if this cannot be accomplished, we should do everything possible to save programs that protect the vulnerable, especially seniors,” Schiff said.
I am glad my grandmother did not have to endure these cuts. Without Meals on Wheels, I am not sure she would have lived as long as she did.