Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"Meals on Wheels" Feeding Seniors

At Thanksgiving, we should recognize and support the many local "Meals on Wheels" programs nationwide. Congress recently ignored one opportunity to do so in proposed income tax legislation.

The MoW concept began in England in 1947, and first took root in this country in Philadelphia in 1954. Today, such programs are stressed by fluctuating costs for gas and food, and by a changing workforce of volunteers who labor as a community service largely at their own expense.

Wikipedia provides a generic description of such programs:

Meals on Wheels are programmes that deliver meals to individuals at home who are unable to purchase or prepare their own meals. The name is often used generically to refer to home-delivered meals programmes, not all of which are actually named "Meals on Wheels."

Because they are housebound, many of the recipients are the elderly; not surprisingly, most of the volunteers are also elderly but able-bodied. * * *

Today, Meals on Wheels programmes generally operate at the county level or smaller. Programmes vary widely in their size, service provided, organisation and funding. * * *

The Meals On Wheels Association of America (MOWAA) is a national association for senior nutrition programmes, but each programme is entirely independent. * * *

For a listing of Meals on Wheels programs in Pennsylvania see: Pennsylvania Meals-on-Wheels and Senior Meal Programs, provided online by MealCall.

At this holiday time, many publications run articles celebrating the essential benefits and identifying the needy beneficiaries of local
MoW programs.

These are some articles that appeared about Meals on Wheels services in just the last three days:

Recently, such community-oriented, cost-efficient feeding programs have been threatened by the price of gasoline, and also by a scarcity of volunteers. The two problems are interrelated.

When gas prices spiked in summer, 2008, the effects on such transportation-dependent services were predictable on those organization that supplied vehicles for deliveries -- the increases hit their budgets immediately. But most local services rely upon volunteer drivers, who use their own vehicles and buy their own fuel. So volunteer drivers were affected too, immediately.

In "Meals on Wheels feels pinch by higher gas, food prices" (05/25/08), by Garry Lenton, posted by The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, PA), it was reported that "[b]ecause of the increasing cost of gas, some nationwide Meals on Wheels groups report losing volunteers." See also: "Meals on Wheels running on fumes: Inflated food costs, recent legislation have program that provides meals for seniors living month to month" (11/23/08) by Brittony Lund, posted by The Lufkin Daily News (Texas)

There is a connection between gas prices and volunteers beyond the personal expenditures. There is also an income tax deduction problem, which was highlighted by the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Associations (PANO), a "statewide membership organization serving and advancing the charitable nonprofit sector through leadership, advocacy, education and services in order to improve the quality of life in Pennsylvania."

In its posting about the IRS Charitable Mileage Rate, PANO urged Congress to "Raise the Charitable Mileage Rate" since it has remained unadjusted for the past ten years:

Volunteers who use their own cars for charitable service can only deduct 14 cents per mile from their Federal income taxes.

The IRS standard business mileage rate just increased [on July 1, 2008, to 58.5 cents per mile, to reflect rising fuel costs], but the charitable rate has not increased in ten years.

High gas prices are hurting charities, volunteers and those who rely these services. Programs like
Meals-on-Wheels are facing critical volunteer shortages throughout the country.

H.R.2020 would raise the charitable mileage rate from the current 14 cents per mile to the business rate (currently 58.5 cents) and eliminate the disincentive for charitable volunteerism. * * *
In a note on its webpage dated October 8, 2008, PANO summarized its attempts in Congress, through two of Pennsylvania's elected federal officials, to change the charitable mileage rate:
Over the past 8 months, PANO spearheaded the nationwide effort to raise the rate that volunteers who use their own vehicles for charitable service, can deduct from their personal income taxes. * * *

Many Americans can no longer afford to volunteer due to high gas prices. Volunteers need relief.

The Charitable Mileage Deduction Equity Act, S.3421 by Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and H.R.2020 by Congressman Todd Platts (R-19-PA) would set the volunteer mileage rate at the business mileage rate. The two rates would be the same: 58.5 cents per mile adjusted by the IRS when necessary. * * *
Unfortunately, other Congressional legislative priorities overwhelmed consideration of those proposed bills. But PANO's efforts laid groundwork for further consideration in the next session of Congress, as described on its website:
The sudden financial crisis on Wall Street, and the $700 billion bailout wiped the volunteer mileage rate and many other worthy bills off the table from consideration in Congress.

In the end, Congress failed to vote on the
Charitable Mileage Deduction Equity Act, the GIVE Act, the revised GIVE Act, or any other form of comprehensive legislation to address the unfair treatment of America’s volunteers. * * *

While we are disappointed that the Congress failed to pass legislation raising the volunteer mileage rate, our efforts [had] significant results. In just 6 short months we brought national attention to this issue, raised its profile in Congress and set the stage for future action.

National Council of Nonprofit Associations (NCNA) described it as follows:
“A state association saw this national volunteer crisis brewing and got others involved in the struggle to fix it. Initial leadership on this issue by the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Associations (PANO) persuaded our national organization – the National Council of Nonprofit Associations – to become deeply involved, which in turn led to 40 state associations and hundreds of other nonprofits across America – from AARP and the American Red Cross to Independent Sector and United Way of America – joining forces, all in less than six weeks.

The state association network rallied quickly to support PANO and NCNA, not only speaking out officially by signing onto a joint endorsement letter, but also by rallying hundreds of our members across the nation to join that endorsement letter.”
Our work helped thousands of nonprofits across the country find their voice, and demonstrated the value of our national network of State Associations. * * *
Most recently, on November 24, 2008, the Internal Revenue Service issued Revenue Procedure 2008-72, which will appear in Internal Revenue Bulletin 2008-50 dated Dec. 15, 2008. It updated "annual optional standard mileage rates for employees, self-employed individuals, or other taxpayers to use in computing the deductible costs of operating an automobile for business, charitable, medical, or moving expense purposes."

In its Section 2, that Rev Proc listed the most recent standard mileage rates:

  • Business -- 55 cents per mile
  • Charitable contribution -- 14 cents per mile
  • Medical and moving -- 24 cents per mile
Further explanation was provided as to the "Determination of standard mileage rates" as follows:
The business and medical and moving standard mileage rates reflected in this revenue procedure are based on an annual study of the fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile conducted on behalf of the Service by an independent contractor.

The charitable contribution standard mileage rate is provided in § 170(i) of the Internal Revenue Code. [Emphasis added]
With the retreat of gas prices to half the level charged just a few months ago, the urgency for Congressional action on such remedial tax legislation may have abated for awhile, but the long-term dual issues of fairness to, and motivation for, volunteers who serve, remain.