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Meals on Wheels Is Just the Beginning: Economist Mark Price on Trump’s Proposed Cuts

Will Trump’s proposed budget wake up rural GOP supporters to the real effects of their party’s priorities?

A disabled pilot opens a prepared meal at his home in Portland, Oregon, July 12, 2010. Meals on Wheels, a program that Donald Trump plans to cut, has been the subject of many peer-reviewed studies in the medical literature, most of which show that the program improves the quality of people's diets, increases their nutrient intake and reduces their food insecurity and nutritional risk. (Photo: Leah Nash / The New York Times)

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Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 22nd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today, to shed light on Trump’s recently proposed budget, we bring you a conversation with Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Sarah Jaffe: Let’s talk about the basics of the budgeting process. Trump released his draft budget, which was horrifying, but most of us aren’t that familiar with the process.

Mark Price: The president’s obligation is to put forward proposals for the full scale of the actual budget, including nondefense discretionary spending, which is about a third. Then, it also includes typically mandatory spending priorities — Medicare, Social Security and food stamps, for instance, are in that category. The president has put forward a proposal for just the nondefense discretionary spending, about a third of the budget, and what his spending priorities are in those areas.

Obviously, a lot of people reacted to that. It is a laundry list of cuts in this discretionary spending that had long been put forward by various groups over the last several decades. The Reagan administration first proposed eliminating the Appalachian Regional Commission and once again, it is on Trump’s list of cuts. Various folks have recommended things like cuts and reductions, but the president here is recommending eliminating the program entirely.

Basically, the president puts forward his initial budget and it now falls to Congress to hold hearings in the various committees on the president’s priorities and then form its own budget resolution. I think that points to where people can have an impact, because it is ultimately going to be the decisions that our congressional representatives and senators make in that next step of the budget process. They are going to be heavily influential in teasing out how much of the president’s priorities in each of these areas end up becoming law.

The president has put forward his initial proposal. As the name of the budget implies, it is skinny and [entails] deep cuts to nondiscretionary spending. But also he didn’t do a big chunk of his job, which is essentially talking about the other parts of the budget. Perhaps those will be coming forward, but we have until April for Congress to step forward and put forward its own budget resolution, its own priorities and spending in each of the areas that the president had proposed.

One of the things that I am seeing, at least, is a lot of energy. People are energized, particularly around health care. They are trying to reach out to their representatives. I live in a relatively small rural community and people are showing up at town hall meetings and giving their representatives an earful on these various priorities, like heating assistance for low-income folks, Meals on Wheels. If people were to show up at town hall meetings to reach out to their members of Congress and let them know that they care about these programs, that would probably go a long way. That would probably have a great effect, certainly more than in past years.

I think it is important to recognize we don’t have much of a safety net in the current environment we are in. The Trump administration has set its priorities, and Congress is a Republican body at the moment and they have a lot of range of motion. Our ability to shape things really is going to come down to whether we can get individual members to think twice about cuts in programs that maybe make sense from the perspective of ideology, but at the end of the day, hurt a lot of their own voters. I think that is really where the action is going to be, if you can get people organized to reach out to their representatives and shape that second step in the budget process.

One of the things that is happening with Trump is that people are so thrown by him that they are paying attention to processes that they really normally don’t, and so are not sure what is normal.

It is not the end of the conversation. Is that what you are getting at?

Yes. Also, I would like to talk about some of the history of targeting some of these programs. As you said, Reagan wanted to make some of these same cuts — and did make cuts — in many of the programs that Trump is wanting to attack. Trump ran on not being a typical Republican. Can you talk about the ways in which this budget shows that he very much is a typical Republican?

Certainly. At least the pieces of the budget that he has put forward that we are seeing definitely fall into that broad group of Republican ideas about “The government is too large, so we need to reduce spending.” All of the spending reductions in discretionary spending, whether we are talking about heating assistance for seniors, job training programs, student aid for work study — a range of programs that benefit people all across the country — are being cut, and almost all the money is going into defense. It is a very typical approach in the sense of deep cuts to social programs, but not necessarily to go to deficit reduction, but instead shifting to defense spending. I think folks in the conservative frame usually want to see reductions in spending overall, but there is this big gorilla in the room called “defense spending” that seems, at least in Trump’s vision, to be eating up most of that opportunity to reduce deficits. Although, again, there are other parts of the budget which we will see going forward….

As all of this is unfolding, basically, it looks as though the effort on health care is really an effort to go after Medicaid. Sort of taking advantage of the Affordable Care Act, which was a step forward in terms of providing more coverage to people, but taking it as an opportunity to not only roll back the Affordable Care Act, but really undermine Medicaid. Reducing the safety net in the other direction, sort of the opposite priorities of the Affordable Care Act. Absolutely it is typical in the sense that there are a lot of cuts proposed here that were proposed in previous years to a wide range of programs, but they are all in one package.

It has been noted in several places that the cuts in this budget would disproportionately affect rural voters who tend to at least be governed by Republicans, if they are not themselves Republicans….

For me, this is one thing I have struggled a bit with. As time has passed after the election, there has been a lot of hand wringing about what happened and what was driving voters. In particular, thinking about Appalachia. There has been some discussion that there was a feeling in those communities, a sense of pride in work, in the coalmines, for instance, and a certain resentment toward government assistance, because it is seen as the opposite of independence. You are dependent on the government. Mixed in with all of this is this opioid addiction that is sweeping across the country. I think, on the one hand, you are absolutely right. This is a very real opportunity to get folks in these rural places energized…. But I think the challenge, as always with rural communities, it is much harder. It is a classic challenge in organizing unions, it is easier to organize a big workplace. You have lots of workers in one spot. When you have people spread out in a lot of little small communities, organizing becomes much harder. That is an enormous challenge, which I can’t help solve, but I think that a lot of these program cuts, whether it is heating assistance or Meals on Wheels, certainly [are] going to create an opportunity to get a lot of these voters in these rural places to wake up to the policy priorities that are coming out of the president and parts of the House and the Senate.

I have seen a lot of memes going around that one of Trump’s golf trips could pay for Meals on Wheels. When thinking about fighting for programs like these, it basically seems like people are going to seize on one or two of these, again, fairly small programs that are obviously very important, but again, not very much in terms of the overall budget. One of the things that happens here is a couple of the programs that get put up for cuts catch the public attention. Meals on Wheels is the big one right now. What is actually happening here, however, is many hundreds, thousands of programs add up to make up nondefense discretionary spending. If everybody focuses on Meals on Wheels, that is $3 million. It is very easy for the Trump administration to go, “Fine, we will save Meals on Wheels” and then you have billions of other cuts that are still killing people all over the place.

You are absolutely right … the initial budget proposals, they are testing the waters, “These are our priorities.” Certainly, here, I think the Trump administration has put forward a broad range of cuts. I suspect that they are not planning that all of those cuts will happen. They are sort of throwing as much mud on the wall as they possibly can to see what sticks…. Meals on Wheels … if the last 10 days have made clear, that is not going to happen. That is a pretty embarrassing cut for any member of the House or the Senate to stand behind, so it is unlikely to hold.

Appalachian Regional Commission (which makes investments in Appalachia in economic development and workforce development in an effort to energize a region that has historically high levels of poverty and a lack of opportunity) — that program might be harder to defend in the sense that it doesn’t communicate as well as Meals on Wheels or some of the other programs. I think, absolutely, one dimension of this is going to be that not all these cuts will be treated equally; some of them will be rolled back. It comes down to, again, how effective people are in organizing and letting their members in the Senate and the House know that they do not support, broadly, these cuts.

I think you put your finger on a real challenge here. A lot of the cuts that have been put forward here — there is a 20 percent cut to the Labor Department and their work is vital and important [and] it goes into simple things like enforcing minimum-wage law, making sure food safety and workplace safety are being properly enforced — those cuts are certainly going to be real and have real and important impact. They might be harder to communicate to people, so they may stick more than other proposed cuts. I think that is the real challenge: how you push back.

If you were in an environment where you had a goalie — in the sense that you had a [Democratic] president, say the Obama administration — that could stand as a veto threat to make sure that certain things don’t go through. You don’t have that here. Essentially, it is a Republican president, Republican majorities in the Senate and the House. It is going to be very difficult to contain the damage and it is going to be hard to focus people on the wide range of programs that have been cut.

It just comes back to making sure that representatives know … that you don’t support these spending priorities overall…. There are a wide variety of programs from work study to job training. These are things that are sort of abstract and difficult to talk about. That is a real challenge.

The old canard about defense spending is it is distributed in every congressperson’s district so nobody will ever vote to cut their own district. I am wondering almost how that same thing plays out here where, again, we have a lot of Republicans representing poor rural districts that are going to disproportionately face the pain of these cuts and don’t have local governments that can step in and mitigate some of that (the way that a New York City government can at least mitigate some of the harm that Trump can do). Somebody who lives in rural Pennsylvania, where you are, or in Maine or in Arkansas doesn’t have that same option. What things are Republicans already looking at and going, “I am going to get killed if I cut that?”

I think it just depends a lot on the nature of the individual member of Congress. If you have an ideological member who is deeply committed to the idea of shrinking government, the size of government, they are probably going to be somewhat impervious to various criticisms. Whereas, if you have got run-of-the-mill members who do listen to their communities, who got elected because they know people in the local community and are going to hear from them, I think there is certainly potential that [will happen]…. I think in Appalachia there is probably going to be some hesitance on the part of a number of Republicans based on the institutions and the local communities that have benefited from Appalachian Regional Commission economic development programs in the past. There is going to be some pushback that they are going to feel to defend that program, because it has provided real benefits to local communities…. Certainly there will be a broad push back on a lot of these cuts in a lot of these places for Republicans, especially.

A lot of people are just now trying to figure out how budgeting processes like this work. Where would you recommend people look to learn about how these things work?

One good place to start is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which is a DC think tank that spends much of its time worrying about nondefense discretionary spending…. The center puts together little primers, and one of their primers is on the federal budget process; it goes through and explains each step of the budget process and also gives folks some numbers and puts those numbers into proper context…. I think that is probably the best place to start.

Finally, how can people keep up with you?

They can find me on the web at There, they will see my research and the advocacy that I do. On Twitter you can follow me at @Price_LaborEcon.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.