Fact Check: Budget Director’s Claims That Programs Don’t Work
March 19, 2017, 4:14pm

By Linda Qiu – The New York Times.

WASHINGTON — Facing criticism over proposed spending cuts in arts, education and antipoverty efforts, President Trump’s budget director repeatedly argued Thursday that at-risk programs neither help nor work.

“I can’t go to the autoworker in Ohio and say please give me some of your money so that I can do this program over here someplace else that really isn’t helping anybody,” Mick Mulvaney said on MSNBC.

Later that day, Mr. Mulvaney reiterated this point in a news briefing, adding that effectively spending the tax dollars of “the coal miner in West Virginia” or “the single mom in Detroit” is “as compassionate as you can get.”

Here’s an assessment of his claims.

Mulvaney suggested that Meals on Wheels is ineffective.

“We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good. And great, Meals on Wheels sounds great. Again, that’s a state decision to fund that particular portion, to take the federal money and give it to the states, and say look, we want to give you money for programs that don’t work. I can’t defend that anymore. We cannot defend that anymore.” 

False. Meals on Wheels helps 2.4 million people each year, including 500,000 veterans and 226,000 older citizens in the three states Mr. Mulvaney specified. And a body of research shows that it does work.

Evaluation of the home-meal delivery program found that participating helped reduce feelings of loneliness and the risk of falls while improving nutrition and food security, and even decreasing government spending.

“If you can provide these lower-cost programs and keep seniors out of nursing homes, that in essence will save money,” said Kali S. Thomas, a professor of health services at Brown University.

Dr. Thomas’s research showed that Medicaid spending could be reduced by $109 million if all states were to increase the population of people who received home-delivered meals by 1 percent.

The federal government provided a fraction of that in the 2016 fiscal year, nearly $4 million, or about 35 percent of total funding to the national Meals on Wheels program through the Older Americans Act. It’s unclear whether that particular source of funding is at risk, as the White House has not specified whether it will be part of the Department of Health and Human Services’ overall 17.9 percent reduction.

The White House does propose to eliminate the Community Service and Community Development Block Grants, two programs that provide assistance to antipoverty efforts. These are characterized by the budget as having little effect, but are used by many state and local Meals on Wheels programs to cover gaps in funding, said Jenny Bertolette, the vice president of communications at Meals on Wheels.

For example, the Meals on Wheels program in Berkeley County, W.Va. served more than 23,300 meals in 2016 for less than $4 a meal. While the Community Development Block Grant doesn’t represent a huge chunk of the organization’s annual funding, losing its $5,000 grant (equivalent to more than 1,000 meals) would matter for a nonprofit that has consistently operated at a net loss.

He criticized the Community Development Block Grant program overall.

“The C.D.B.G.s have been identified as programs since I believe the first, actually the second Bush administration as ones that were just not showing any results.”

This is exaggerated. Mr. Mulvaney stands on firmer ground with his criticism of Meals on Wheels’ funding source, but he goes too far in his unequivocal statement that the program doesn’t produce “any results.”

The 42-year-old program, administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, largely falls under the control of local grantees. This means spending can be tailored to the specific needs of a low-income area, said William Rohe, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Much has been written about wasteful spending in the program — take, for example, a martini bar and a Brazilian steakhouse in St. Joseph, Mo. On the other hand, the Community Development Block Grant also has helped tens of thousands of Americans find jobs, rehabilitate more than one million homes and finance projects like the Colorado Center for the Blind and the revitalization of downtown Allentown, Pa.

Some studies question whether the money is actually helping poor communities, but others demonstrate significant neighborhood improvements and increases in real estate values.

Mr. Mulvaney’s statement is “simply not accurate,” Dr. Rohe said. “Rather than doing away with this important program, it should be revised to require local governments to better target the funds geographically.”

He asserted that after-school programs have no effect on performance.

“So, let’s talk about after-school programs generally. They’re supposed to be educational programs, right? And that’s what they’re supposed to do, they’re supposed to help kids who can’t — who don’t get fed at home, get fed so that they do better at school. Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that. There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually helping results, helping kids do better at school.”

This is misleading. While Mr. Mulvaney specified after-school meal programs, it’s unclear what he is referring to because the government program that does fund after-school nutrition is not specifically at risk (nor does it purport to “help kids do better at school”).

The budget does propose to cut 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which fund after-school programs for about 1.6 million children in high-poverty areas. While the vast majority provide snacks and meals, feeding children is not their core mission.

“It’s something they do, but let’s not miss their primary purpose,” said Heather Weiss of the Global Family Research Program, who has evaluated after-social programs for decades. “They were set up to provide safe environments for kids with learning opportunities of all sorts.”

Looking at the primary purpose, Mr. Mulvaney is wrong that there is no evidence of outcomes. While early research found no evidence of educational outcomes, Dr. Weiss and others have disputed their methodology and say they were conducted before the programs were up and running.

More recent valuations show these programs do improve student performance. According to the community learning centers’ latest publicly available performance report, from 2011, the program hasn’t always met its annual performance targets, but participants did improve math and English grades by 30 to 40 percent every year across all grade levels.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of the effectiveness of after-school programs is partly funded by 21st Century Community Learning Centers. Becoming a Man, an after-school program for Chicago Public Schools students, reduces violent-crime arrests by 50 percent and improves graduation rates by 19 percent.