P

roposed cuts to a multi-billion dollar federal grant program that helps cities fund neighborhood development may have far-reaching implications for residents’ health, researchers say.

The Community Development Block Grant program, administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, provided about $3.2 billion last year for cities to renovate buildings, construct housing, and clean up neighborhoods. Additionally, a small portion of the grants fund health-related projects.

But the fund is slated for demolition in President Trump’s budget blueprint, released Thursday — which public health researchers say could harm people’s well-being in a number of ways.

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“We know that having access to safe, decent, affordable housing is one of the key prerequisites for any shot at maintaining your health or your family’s health,” said Mariana Arcaya, an assistant professor of urban planning and public health at MIT.

In 2016, the federal government gave about $10 million of these grants to cities to clean up lead contamination in homes, for instance, according to HUD data.

Development funds can often bolster health on the community level. For example, earlier this year a grocery store opened in a “food desert” area of Wichita, Kan., thanks to the grant program.

And ten years ago, block grant funding helped a nonprofit build an independent living home for seniors near Los Angeles. Jane Graf, CEO of Mercy Housing, the nonprofit that coordinated the project, said that the government saved money because the elderly individuals who found a home in her development had previously been racking up emergency room bills or living in expensive public nursing homes.

And some funding directly impacts health. Last year, about $30 million, or 1 percent of the program’s funding, went to local health facilities and programs to provide physical and mental health services, according to HUD data.

A Chicago nonprofit has received $300,000 over the past three years to train police officers on how to interact with individuals experiencing mental health crises.

Without this training, “we could be wrongly incarcerating many, many individuals who simply need mental health services,” said Kerri Brown, the organization’s chief administrative officer.

Tiffany Burnside, who managed the training program, said that the work was only possible because of the grant. The money paid for training the police officers, and also for door-to-door visits to residents, telling them to request a crisis-trained officer when calling 911 if they suspected the individual had a mental health condition.

One program that has attracted particular attention is Meals on Wheels, an organization that provides low-cost meals to homebound individuals. It’s unclear how the program will be impacted — some state programs may not receive federal block grants, while others depend heavily on them, said Jenny Bertolette, the organization’s vice president of communications.

For example, block grants make up 30 percent of the budget of a Meals on Wheels program near Detroit. If they lost the money, they’d have to cut the number of meals they provide, or establish a waitlist, Bertolette said.

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Asked Thursday about the Meals on Wheels program, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters at the White House that CDBG-related programs in general have “not shown any results.”

“We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good,” Mulvaney said. “And great, Meals on Wheels sounds great. Again, that’s a state decision to fund that particular portion. … We’re $20 trillion in debt. We’re going to spend money. We’re going to spend a lot of money. But we’re not going to spend it on programs that cannot show that they actually deliver the promises we’ve made to people.”

In fact, NIH-funded studies have shown that Meals on Wheels results in a number of demonstrable health-related outcomes beyond just reducing hunger. The program has been shown to increase seniors’ prescription drug adherence rates, reduce loneliness, and may reduce their risk of falls.

The blueprint is one of the first steps in the federal budget-making process. While nothing has been finalized, it indicates who and what the administration thinks is important.

Arcaya said that proposed cuts to this grant program, along with lower budgets for the Environmental Protection Agency, will disproportionately impact vulnerable and low-income residents.

“I think that all of the cuts together paint a picture of a vision where the health of the country doesn’t matter, and in particular, the health of low-income Americans doesn’t matter,” Arcaya said.

Lev Facher contributed reporting.

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