A harsh cut in a harsh budget

Some Meals on Wheels programs could be threatened by President Trump’s budget, unveiled Thursday.
Some Meals on Wheels programs could be threatened by President Trump’s budget, unveiled Thursday. Observer file photo

Their names were Bob and Virginia. They were an elderly couple in a modest east Charlotte home. Virginia suffered from a severe heart ailment, and Bob needed help providing her with healthy food. The meal they had delivered each day helped keep them independent enough to stay in their house.

Bob and Virginia were on my wife’s Meals on Wheels route nearly a decade ago. Theirs is a typical story, in that the meals she delivered were more than meals. They were a form of independence. They were a daily check-in. They were human contact. They were, in many cases, vital.

Now, they may be threatened. Donald Trump’s new budget, released Thursday, would cut the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant, which provides money across the country to anti-poverty programs, including Meals on Wheels.

It’s a harsh cut. It’s a harsh budget, one that targets everything from the arts to education to the environment. But most of all, it cruelly dismisses people like Bob and Virginia.

A big caveat here: Charlotte’s Meals on Wheels program, called Friendship Trays, doesn’t receive government money. Some sister programs also get little or no public funding. They are, in fact, the kind of model conservatives point to when they say the private sector can handle these kinds of things.

But that’s not the case in many poor and rural areas, which don’t have the deep donor base that can support programs like Meals on Wheels. Even counties like ours will feel pain from Trump’s budget, because when you cut money that helps the vulnerable, the funding pie gets divided up even more. It’s simply wishful thinking to believe that state budgets or private dollars can fill in all the blanks this budget would leave.

To which some conservatives might say: It’s not government’s job to fill in those blanks. As Trump’s budget chief Mick Mulvaney asked skeptically Thursday: “Can we ask the taxpayer to pay for this?”

Actually, yes. Studies show Meals on Wheels helps lower Medicaid costs by keeping the elderly out of more expensive nursing homes. But Mulvaney’s question is a good one. We should ask it more.

How about this: Should we ask the taxpayer to pay for our president leaving the White House most weekends to enjoy his Florida resort, Mar-A-Lago? Those visits, which cost taxpayers an estimated $3 million a pop, have already accounted for a fifth of the tax dollars Barack Obama spent on such travel throughout his whole presidency.

By the way, that $3 million for one Trump getaway? That would pay for almost a decade’s worth of Meals on Wheels in a city the size of Charlotte.

No, federal budgets don’t work that way, of course. If Donald Trump dials back his Florida getaways, more money isn’t going to be directly available to programs that help the vulnerable.

But in a way, it’s exactly how budgets work. You set priorities. You give money to things you think are important. It’s inescapably simple, and it asks of us an inescapable question: What kind of spending do we want to prioritize?

Is it the kind that adds big dollars to already flush bottom lines? Is it the kind that shrugs when our president heads south for frequent Florida sun? Or is it the spending that tends to people like a woman named Betty?

She was another person on my wife’s route – an elderly woman who lived in an apartment off Eastway Drive. The apartment was impeccable, my wife remembers, but she was concerned about how long Betty might be able to stay there. Her eyes were deteriorating. “I worried about her sight,” my wife says.

We should worry, too, about ours.

Peter: @saintorange; pstonge@charlotteobserver.com