The Subsidiarity Case for Meals on Wheels

March 18, 2017

To be fair let it be said that White House budget director Mick Mulvaney did not say that Meals on Wheels isn’t showing results. [1] He was talking about community development block grants (CDGBs), a program of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s not quite the same thing. As the Washington Post reports:

“There are some scattered municipalities that use some of their CDBG funds to help fund nutrition programs for the elderly. But most of the funding for Meals on Wheels comes from a separate program run out of the Health and Human Services Department, said Jenny Bertolette, vice president of communications at Meals on Wheels.

“‘The FY 2016 budget level for the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program (through HHS) was $834,753,000,’ she said. ‘The 2017 ask (proposed by the House) is $848,557,000.’”

This doesn’t mean that no Meals on Wheels programs will be impacted, because, depending on the state, some CDBG funds do indeed go to Meals on Wheels programs. As Ms. Bertolette puts it,

“The portions of the President’s Budget that have been released so far call for the elimination of a number of federal programs, including the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), on which some local Meals on Wheels programs rely to deliver nutritious meals, safety checks and friendly visits to our nation’s most vulnerable seniors.” [2]

So the Trump administration doesn’t get a complete pass on this one. Some local Meals on Wheels programs will be adversely affected. Still, it is comforting to know that Meals on Wheels gets most of its funding from elsewhere. Ms. Bertolette informs us that details on its “network’s primary source of funding, the Older Americans Act, which has supported senior nutrition programs for 45 years, have not yet been released. This vital Act provides 35% of the total funding for Meals on Wheels (both congregate and home-delivered programs) nationally.”

But the Meals on Wheels program is not out of the woods. Ms. Bertolette warns that with “a stated 17.9% cut to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) budget…it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which these critical services would not be significantly and negatively impacted if enacted into law.”

Now there is simply no reason to think that any diminishment of the program could be a good thing. It is an exemplar of effectiveness and cost efficiency. The Chicago Tribune reports that a “2013 review of studies…found that home-delivered meal programs for seniors ‘significantly improve diet quality, increase nutrient intakes, and reduce food insecurity and nutritional risk among participants. Other beneficial outcomes include increased socialization opportunities, improvement in dietary adherence, and higher quality of life.’” [3] Moreover, these “‘programs are also aligned with the federal cost-containment policy to rebalance long-term care away from nursing homes to home-and community-based services by helping older adults maintain independence and remain in their homes and communities as their health and functioning decline.’” In other words, they save money.

But one feature of the Meals on Wheels program that hasn’t received a lot of attention is how much in keeping it is with the Catholic social teaching principle of subsidiarity. The word comes from the Latin subsidium, meaning help, support, or relief. [4] It has a military connotation, referring to reinforcement, or reserve troops. [5] Applied to economic, political, and social questions, it means that the State is to step in where needed, and not otherwise. Thus, Pope Pius XI explained the term this way in Quadragesimo anno:

“As history abundantly proves, it is true that on account of changed conditions many things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations. Still, that most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed, remains fixed and unshaken in social philosophy: Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.

“The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of ‘subsidiary function,’ the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.” (secs. 79-80) [6]

Now Meals on Wheels is precisely the kind of subordinate group, effectively handling a critical social need, contemplated by the subsidiarity principle. But this doesn’t mean that the State has no role with regard to its functioning, and can properly leave off any assistance to it whatsoever. On the contrary, as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church explains,

On the basis of this principle, all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help (‘subsidium’) — therefore of support, promotion, development — with respect to lower-order societies. In this way, intermediate social entities can properly perform the functions that fall to them without being required to hand them over unjustly to other social entities of a higher level, by which they would end up being absorbed and substituted, in the end seeing themselves denied their dignity and essential place.

“Subsidiarity, understood in the positive sense as economic, institutional or juridical assistance offered to lesser social entities, entails a corresponding series of negative implications that require the State to refrain from anything that would de facto restrict the existential space of the smaller essential cells of society. Their initiative, freedom and responsibility must not be supplanted.” (sec. 186) [7]

Applying the subsidiarity principle to Meals on Wheels means the State rendering all necessary assistance, including economic assistance, while not supplanting the program’s initiative, freedom, and responsibility. This can be a difficult idea to grasp in a place like the United States, where it is assumed that the one supplying the money is the one that controls every aspect of the operation being funded, and this difficulty may be part of the reason that some have been misled to believe that the subsidiarity principle requires no government involvement in social programs whatsoever.

Many are quick to point out Saint Pope John Paul II’s concerns with the “Welfare State” in Centesimus annus, as evidence that, in accordance with Catholic principles, the State should not concern itself with the concerns of the poor or otherwise needy at all. But an examination of what John Paul II actually wrote shows that this understanding is misguided:

“In recent years the range of such intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of State, the so-called ‘Welfare State’. This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the ‘Social Assistance State’. Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.

“By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care.” (sec. 48)

John Paul II’s objection to the “Welfare State” was not that it serves the poor and needy, and that government should not be bothered with such things. On the contrary, his objection was that the “Welfare State” does not serve the poor and needy well enough; that it results in bureaucratic concerns overriding the needs of those that the “Welfare State” is meant to serve. His diagnosis is unsurprising: The “Welfare State” approach to human need fails to serve its function because it does not respect the subsidiarity principle. But, as we have seen, the principle of subsidiarity does not rule out economic assistance on the part of the government. On the contrary, the subsidiarity principle calls for precisely that where it is needed. It is exactly the kind of subsidiary assistance that the State is called upon to provide.

So if we are really going to apply the principle of subsidiarity to the operations of American society, organizations like Meals on Wheels ought to be encouraged and supported, not defunded. It produces good outcomes, and it saves the government money. Plus it provides the local and human touch called for by Saint Pope John Paul II in Centesimus annus. And its main federal funding source supplies only 35% of its total funding!

Let us not be misguided, then, into thinking that the principle of subsidiarity, or concerns about the “Welfare State,” call for defunding an organization like Meals on Wheels. The contrary is true. And if CDGBs are really demonstrating a lack of effectiveness (let us, for present purposes, assume that is true), then the answer is not to remove such assistance as Meals on Wheels receives through that program, but to replace CDGB funding with funding that is more direct.

There is, of course, the concern that the federal government should not provide assistance to those elderly people that require such a program so that the wealthy can receive tax breaks. But that concern doesn’t form any part of Catholic social teaching. At all.

Jack Quirk