What you need to know about CDBG, Meals on Wheels, and budget cuts


So you have seen the articles saying that the Meals on Wheels program is being eliminated from the Federal budget. That’s a program that delivers food to the homebound elderly. And maybe you have heard the right wing talking-heads protesting, and saying that it is the states, not the federal government, that makes those decisions. THEY are not cutting Meals on Wheels. That would be the states. 


And maybe, if you were really paying attention, you have heard that what is really being cut is something called CDBG, which stands for Community Development Block Grant. 


Let me clear this up for you, and tell you what I know about CDBG. It might make you even angrier than you were when you thought it was just Meals on Wheels that was in jeopardy. 


Whenever you see the words “block grant,” please understand that this grant was created as a compromise to placate liberals when conservatives want to cut budgets.  Usually, a block grant is born when a Republican legislature wants to reduce the cost of a bunch of things that the federal government used to pay for.  It might be related to education or housing or poverty or art or science or infrastructure. So the government used to pay for something specific. Then they decided to cut the funding for those things, and claim that this money would be better spent if the states got to decide how to spend the money. Republicans love to say leaving it to the states is the best way to go. They say this is a way to reduce big government and whatnot.


So this is how it works. Let’s say, Congress cuts ONE BILLION DOLLARS in spending. Then, they put a HALF A BILLION DOLLARS into a block grant, which they give to the states, to do with whatever they want.  Not really whatever they want. There are federal requirements about the way the money can be spent. The states get the money, and submit applications to the federal government agency that is administering the funds, and explain what they want to do with the money. If their application is accepted, the states then states invite agencies to apply for the money to achieve the goals that they set. The states and localities then set their own priorities and criteria about how the agencies who get the money have to account for their work. 


Learn More About How the Federal Budget Works!  Click Here. 


Republicans love block grants. Right now, they are talking about turning Medicaid into a block grant.  Watch for it. The plan will be to slash the total government spending, and give the reduced funding to the states. 


CDBG, the Community Development Block Grant, was born under the Ford administration. The Reagan years were big for block grants. Federal funding streams were cut, and replaced with the state administered block grants. CDBG money was targeted to be spent on anti-poverty programs. 


So Meals on Wheels is one of those anti-poverty plans slated to be cut. Maybe you also heard something about after school programs being cut. That is the same cut. The CDBG money. There are a lot of CDBG programs slated to be cut that you haven’t heard a thing about. Literacy classes. Summer youth employment. Homeless services. Soup kitchens. Playground repair. Job training. Daycare centers. Sidewalk repair in decaying neighborhood. Rec center activities for kids in public housing. Tens of thousands of little programs in neighborhoods across the country, doing all kinds of things that no one else is willing to pay for. 


During the budget press conference, some talking-head for the Trump administration explained that they programs are being cut because they are “not effective.”  And I got mad. Really mad.


I know a lot about block grants. I spent more than two decades overseeing programs funded by a wide variety of grants. And let me tell you something. Block grants are a pain in the ass.


First of all, there are the Federal requirements on what the money is allowed to be spent on. Then there are the State priorities and guidelines. Then, here in NYC, there was a City layer too. That means audits by the Federal government. And audits by the State. And audits by the City. Fiscal audits. Program audits. Block grants are always a maze of complex and obscure requirements that leave even the most sophisticated grant administrator phased. I have overseen grants that were literally ten or twenty times as much money as block grants, that required the same amount of staff time for busy work because they had fewer layers. But this is the Republican idea of less government. 


Pull your files for the folks you served three years ago, and let’s take a random sample to ensure that 70% of them live in one of these three zip codes. Let’s see the income data for everyone you served. Did you collect W2’s or photocopy paychecks for everyone attending your classes to prove they had a low income?  It says here you had a workshop on June 2, 2013. Let’s see the sign-in sheet. Who ran the workshop? What is her job title? Where are her employment records? This class that you ran. You were supposed to pre-test all students, and post-test 80% of the students, and 70% were supposed to make an educational gain based on this criteria. Let’s look at the tests and compare them to the attendance records and calculate your post-test rate and educational gain rate.


I have hosted literally hundreds of audits. And I was lucky enough to work for a (wonderful) agency that not only provided fantastic services to the community, but also had enough infrastructure to maintain these records. And great clerical staff. (You know who you are. And I love you!) So our audits went well. Even our block grant audits. 


But when you hear that these services are “not effective,” very often it means that the audits didn’t go well. Years after the services were provided, some program director (who has a full-time job outside of hosting audits) didn’t have clerical staff who could put their hands on the post tests that were administered three years earlier. Or the volunteers who were really good with the kids weren’t that good at doing the paperwork. Or the grants were so small, and so temporary, that no one who worked on that project works here anymore, and no one knows where the paperwork is.  


I hate block grants. I hate them because they represent some convoluted Republican theory of small government, which means that there are three layers of bureaucracy (City, State and Federal) instead of one Federal layer.


I hate block grants because I know that they were created to placate liberals in Congress when conservatives wanted to cut programs that the Federal government used to provide.


But mostly I hate block grants because  they are usually so small, spread so thin, trying to meet so many different needs for so many different services in so many diverse communities. The needs are so great. And there is never enough to go around.


Block grants provide vital services. I can’t tell you what services are going to disappear in your state if CDBG is cut. It might be Meals on Wheels or summer youth employment programs, or afterschool programs that help kids with homework before their parents get home from work, or literacy classes for adults, or reading programs at the local library.


But I can tell you the cuts are going to hurt.


I know you have a lot of calls to make, and a lot of issues to fight for. But please put this on your list. Call your Congressional representatives, and tell them to preserve full funding for CDBG.


Add Poverty In America to Your Spring Reading List