In this era of fiscal austerity, prioritizing the right programs and services is paramount. We must identify the essentials and pare spending areas that arent as crucial. Most people would probably place public safety at the top of the priority list, as without protection we fall into a Hobbesian world that is nasty, brutish and short. At the national level, that means funding a military that can protect America from foreign invasion, and at the local level it means strong police, fire and emergency medical services.
The next priority is public education, infrastructure and a basic safety net for societys most vulnerable citizens. These are the fundamental building blocks of a functioning and moral society. Everything else the government subsidizes should be lower on the priority list.
This brings us to the current debate on funding for Meals on Wheels for seniors. It is troubling in a city as affluent as Alexandria that the discussion is even taking place about whether to provide one hot meal each weekday to poor and shut-in senior citizens. If finding a little more than $700 per Sunday to fund the seventh day of meals is something we say we cant afford, then we need to look at everything this city spends money on and find a way.
Meals on Wheels is not a government program, but a nonprofit organization. It functions with money from federal, state and local funding streams and also relies on other charitable organizations and volunteers to operate.
The threat to funding for Meals on Wheels at the national level stems from a lack of political will to tackle the true causes of our national debt. Funding for nonprofits like Meals on Wheels falls in the 12 to 17 percent of the federal budget used for discretionary spending. Leadership in the House of Representatives is trying to carve $61 billion in cuts from this years federal budget, mostly from discretionary spending. While cuts are needed, the real elephant in the room is the 83 percent of the budget comprising the holy grail of Social Security, Medicare / Medicaid and defense spending. Politicians on both sides of the isle are afraid to tackle those issues because of fear of demagoguery and political loss. So the country falls deeper in debt and cutting hot meals for poor seniors is the political response.
We need to take a sharp look at our local spending priorities as well. Some budget paring of non-essential programs has taken place in the last few years, but here, too, there is not political will to tackle the difficult issue of strategically paring the city workforce rather than eliminating positions through attrition. We also fund lights in trees and cultural festivals, which are nice, but hardly on the same level of importance as food for the elderly poor.
When Councilwoman Alicia Hughes raised the issue of funding the seventh day of hot meals for Meals on Wheels at a recent council session, her suggestion was tabled because it violated the city councils process.
Effective process is important to any functional organization, but more important than process is having the right priorities. Unfortunately, prioritizing means making often unpopular decisions that may not be political winners. Providing food for largely invisible shut-ins isnt glamorous, but its something we must do.