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CORRECTION: In the initial version of the story, we speculated that the number of people who could be deprived of meals due to the proposed cuts could range from 2 million to 4 million. However, an alert reader pointed out that we neglected to factor in the obvious reality that people eat every day, so the number of people affected would be much smaller. We have revised this item to reflect that. However, this error doesn’t affect our ruling of Half True, since we still believe that Pelosi’s estimate of 6 million meals was calculated reasonably, and that her error came from misspeaking as she described the statistic at the public event.
On April 4, 2011, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made an appearance with a group called the Hunger Fast Coalition in which she took aim at her Republican rivals’ budget priorities.
"In one of the bills before us, 6 million seniors are deprived of meals – homebound seniors are deprived of meals," Pelosi said. "People ask us to find our common ground, the middle ground. Is middle ground 3 million seniors not receiving meals? I don’t think so. We’ve got to take this conversation from a debate about numbers and dollar figures and finding middle ground there, to the higher ground of national values. I don’t think the American people want any one of those 6 million people to lose their meals."
The comment attracted a fair amount of attention in the blogosphere, so we thought it was worth a check. We’ll focus on whether 6 million seniors would in fact be denied meals if Republican budget plans are enacted.
When we contacted Pelosi’s office, they walked us through their calculations. But first, they acknowledged an error in Pelosi’s remark: She should have said "6 million meals for seniors," not meals for "6 million seniors." So right from the beginning, we’ll have to downgrade her original comment’s accuracy.
Setting that aside, how good is the rest of Pelosi’s math?
First, Pelosi’s office elaborated that the Republican bill she was referring to was H.R. 1, a fiscal year 2011 spending bill that passed the House but was rejected by the Senate in a 44-56 vote on March 9, 2011. The bill specifies that aging services programs within the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging will get about $1.4 million. That’s roughly 5 percent below the funding for those programs during fiscal year 2010.
This 5 percent cut is relevant to Pelosi’s comment because it refers to the budget category that includes federal nutrition programs for seniors. According to HHS, these programs are designed to "reduce hunger and food insecurity; promote socialization of older individuals; and promote the health and well-being of older individuals and delay adverse health conditions through access to nutrition and other disease prevention and health promotion services."
Generally speaking, this funding goes either toward "Home-Delivered Nutrition Services," which helps deliver meals to homebound seniors, and "Congregate Nutrition Services," which provides meals at senior centers and other centralized locations.
In fiscal year 2010, total funding for these nutrition programs was just under $819.5 million. Cutting 5 percent from this amount would mean a reduction of nearly $41 million. Pelosi’s office said when they made the calculations, they actually used a more conservative estimate -- a 3.6 percent reduction -- so by their math, the cut would actually be $30 million.
And how deep is the impact of either a 3.6 percent cut or a 5 percent cut? We found data for fiscal year 2009 showing that the program funded roughly 149.2 million home-delivered meals and 92.5 million centralized meals. Together, that adds up to about 242 million meals. A 5 percent cut from that amount would be 12.1 million meals. A 3.6 percent cut would affect 8.7 million meals.
But once again, Pelosi’s calculations were conservative. Her office used 193 million meals as its baseline, rather than 242 million. Using this smaller starting point, a 5 percent cut would mean a reduction of 9.7 million meals, while a 3.6 percent cut would mean a reduction of 6.9 million meals.
The 6.9 million figure, her office said, is the source of the statistic Pelosi cited in her appearance with the Hunger Fast Coalition.
As far as we can tell, Pelosi’s math seems sound -- at every turn, she erred on the cautious side, up to and including the final step, in which she rounded 6.9 million down to 6 million, rather than up to 7 million, which would have been entirely justified. So 6 million meals is a conservative estimate; the true number could well be higher, and her methodology provides her with a large cushion for error.
In other words, Pelosi’s problem wasn’t her math; it was how she reported her math at the event. So ultimately, Pelosi is wrong, but we think she deserves credit for taking a cautious approach in cobbling together her numbers. On balance, we rate he claim Half True.
Office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, "Pelosi Remarks at Photo Opportunity with the Hunger Fast Coalition" (press release), April 4, 2011
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging, fact sheet for Nutrition Services (OAA Title IIIC), accessed April 6, 2011
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging, "Table 4a. Service Units Provided for Selected Services Under Title III of OAA: FY 2008," accessed April 6, 2011
Text of H.R. 1
E-mail interview with Drew Hammill, spokesman for Rep. Nancy Pelosi, April 6, 2011
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