Infrastructure program at risk of Trump cuts gets big boost to help communities during pandemic

The Darling Inn affordable senior community in Vermont is one of many organizations that relies on Meals on Wheels to deliver food to those in need. Photo by Doug Kerr on:

A public infrastructure program that President Trump has tried to get rid of since he took office is showing its usefulness during the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite the president’s opposition to the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, Congress just gave CDBG a $5 billion increase in its most recent coronavirus stimulus package.

The new funding almost doubles the size of the program. Congress expanded this program during the pandemic because it helps cities with public infrastructure, affordable housing, and crucial services like Meals on Wheels.

CDBG was created by Congress in 1974. Congress consolidated a wide range of housing and economic development programs into one flexible grant that would be run by states and large cities. Republicans supported it because it allowed local governments to address the local needs they knew best. Having one flexible grant could also reduce costs to the government. This was attractive to lawmakers who wanted to reduce the federal deficit.

Projects and programs using CDBG funds are supposed to primarily serve low- and moderate-income persons. It can be used in affordable housing developments, usually for infrastructure costs. It can also be used for public infrastructure projects. These are things like improving water and sewer systems, installing sidewalks and street lighting, or building parks. 

CDBG can also fund economic development programs. These include programs that help low-income workers with job training and placement. In addition, local governments can use CDBG to support critical community services. These services often target youth and senior needs. Meals on Wheels is one of the best known programs supported by CDBG funding in many communities.

CDBG can also be used by cities and states to provide emergency rental assistance. CDBG can support up to three months of emergency rental assistance to low-income renters. City leaders do not want to see a wave of homelessness once an eviction moratorium gets lifted and people struggle to pay back rent. Emergency rental assistance will give local officials another tool to help people with the lowest incomes keep their homes.

CDBG received $3.4 billion in the FY 2020 appropriations. Congress gave it more funding in the coronavirus stimulus package because it is a very flexible resource that local governments can tailor to their unique needs. CDBG also reaches almost all U.S. communities. Those that are too small for their own allocations can benefit from CDBG funds administered by state governments.

HUD has provided additional guidance on how CDBG funds can be used for activities to support infectious disease response. Image by

HUD has provided additional guidance on how CDBG funds can be used for activities to support infectious disease response. These include building or rehabilitating facilities for clinics and places for residents to quarantine. It also includes loans and grants to small businesses. Cities can also use these funds for job training to expand the pool of healthcare workers, provide healthcare equipment, and expand meal delivery services for people in quarantine.

$2 billion of the new funds are going out as formula grants to local jurisdictions. HUD has already published these allocations. $1 billion of the new funds will go to states. The remaining $2 billion will be allocated by HUD based on need. The new CDBG funds cannot be used to fill gaps in the regular operating budgets of cities and states. They must be used for measures related to problems caused by the pandemic.

If CDBG is so helpful for local governments, why has president Trump tried to eliminate it in every one of his budgets? The president’s FY 2020 budget said that the program was “wasteful” and had “limited effectiveness.” The budget proposal describes CDBG as, “a program that has expended more than $250 billion since its inception in 1974, but has not demonstrated significant impact.”

Trump’s budget proposal also says that these activities should be funded by state and local governments because they are “better equipped to respond to local conditions.” The administration also criticizes the CDBG allocation formula for doing a poor job of targeting funds to the areas of greatest need.

CDBG, though, has had a tremendous impact since it began in the 1970s. CDBG achieved the following milestones between 2005 and 2013:

  • Created or retained 330,546 jobs.
  • Assisted more than 1.1 million people with housing.
  • Benefitted more than 33 million people with public improvements.
  • Provided public services to more than 105 million people.

CDBG is not only important to large cities. It is the main infrastructure funding for many small rural communities who receive their funds through state agencies. Small towns depend on CDBG for basic needs, like adequate water and sewer systems, extending electricity, and  improving public buildings like libraries, town halls and courthouses. With their limited tax base, small towns could never provide basic services without flexible funding like CDBG.

Many Meals on Wheels programs around the country are supported by CDBG funds from state and local governments. Meals on Wheels programs deliver prepared meals to house-bound seniors. For many, this may be the only hot meal of the day. Meals are offered at an affordable price, or even free if a senior cannot afford it. The programs depend heavily on volunteers to prepare the meals, package them, and deliver them door to door. The meal deliveries also offer caring social contacts for many isolated seniors, as drivers often stop and visit during their deliveries.

Meals on Wheels programs are trying to adapt to changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic. With most states issuing stay-at-home orders, demand has risen greatly for meal deliveries to seniors. This is not surprising, since seniors are among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Even healthy seniors who are still active in the community are deciding to stay home and stay safe.

The pandemic is also having a growing impact on the Meals on Wheels volunteer force. Large percentage of volunteers are retirees. Many programs are actively recruiting younger volunteers. A large portion of volunteers at Meals on Wheels programs are retirees. Programs are seeing many of their older volunteers step back to self-quarantine in their homes.

Tracey Shamberger is Director of Public Relations and Business Development for Agewell, the agency that runs Meals on Wheels for Burlington, Vermont. She said that younger people have been filling the gap. “People have been stepping up like it’s no one’s business,” she said. “There have been a ton of new volunteers that have stepped forward, younger volunteers, people who have been laid off, which is incredibly generous.”

There have been other impacts in how Meals on Wheels programs operate. Drivers are wearing gloves and masks. In some cases, they are leaving meals at doorsteps to maintain social distancing. Some programs also have drivers delivering more meals per trip to meet the increased demand for the service.

I also spoke with Cindy Santaw-Brown, director of the Darling Inn/Lyndon Area Meal Site. They operate the community meal site from the historic Darling Inn, located in Lyndonville, Vermont. This region on the Canadian border is known as the Northeast Kingdom. The area is very rural and isolated, and is the poorest area in Vermont.

Darling Inn is an affordable senior property, and the meal site normally serves the public in the building’s dining room. The program also does Meals on Wheels deliveries in Lyndonville and surrounding areas.

I helped redevelop Darling Inn several years ago and worked a lot with Cindy. I wanted to hear how the community meal site was doing now that Vermont was under a stay-at-home order. Cindy said that the most obvious impact has been the closure of the dining room. Seniors who used the meal site can still pick up takeout meals at the back entrance, and they can also have deliveries through Meals on Wheels.

Because more Lyndon area seniors are staying home, the Meals on Wheels program has seen a large increase in customers. Another meal site in a nearby town closed its operations, so the Darling Inn program has expanded to include that area. Typically, they serve about 40 meals a day, but during the week of March 27, they served more than 100 meals a day. 

Cindy shared that the program has lost three older volunteers who decided to self-quarantine, and welcomes the help of younger volunteers. The program has also seen strong local support, with large donations from the Vermont Community Foundation and Kingdom Trail Association. Kingdom Trails maintains one of the largest mountain biking trail networks in America and attracts riders from around the world. Cindy said, “The community has been unbelievable.”

Cindy is confident the Meals on Wheels program will be fine, even if the coronavirus pandemic goes on for awhile and demand increases for meals. “We have an awesome team. They’re topnotch!”

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