As an $85 billion annual federal budget cut kicked in as feared on Friday, those frail elderly those who fought in World War II, or Korea, or who labored in factories to keep the economy going, who worked hard to raise families and help their communities may find themselves among more than 10,000 senior citizens in Pennsylvania who may end up staring at empty plates.

While the 5 percent across-the-board cuts, called a sequester, will be painful for most people, the very young and the very old have the most to lose. This fiscal year alone, funding for 2,300 children to enroll in Head Start and Early Head Start programs in Pennsylvania will be lost, as will money to help feed senior citizens.

The sequester cuts will slash deeply into Pennsylvania's Meals on Wheels program

"If we don't take care of people who took care of our country, that's sad," says Karen Wood, director, Diakon Community Services for Seniors. Diakon, of Pottsville, operates Meals on Wheels for Schuylkill County through a contract with the Office of Senior Services.

State Secretary of Aging Brian Duke said the reductions are actually a 9.1 percent cut about $14 million from the roughly $136 million in federal funds the state gets to help feed senior citizens.

"Right now, the Commonwealth is not in a position to replace that money," he says.

The next step, he says, is to "work with Area Agencies on Aging on how to best approach this."

One of the biggest obstacles to planning around the budget cuts is that, as of Wednesday, there were few details released by the U.S. Administration on Aging.

"We don't know during what period of time the cuts will happen," Duke says.

But in any event, he says, "we will prioritize the most vulnerable first, and work from there."

Deputy Secretary of Aging David Gingerich pointed out that the budget cuts are compressed because they began on March 1 instead of January 1 as originally expected.

"Compounding the issue is that the percentage was for a year. We have to get to same dollar figure, but now in less time, so the cut is deeper," he says.

"In Pennsylvania, home-delivered meals are funded by the Older Americans Act, which is targeted for a 5.1 percent decrease if sequestration goes through this Friday, and the PA lottery," says JoAnn Nenow, president of Pennsylvania's Meals on Wheels program. "The budgeted lottery revenue projected for the upcoming year is up in the air. The government is predicting four million fewer home-delivered meals funded by the OAA. And some Meals on Wheels programs might shut down, especially those that are fully or heavily dependent upon this government funding."

Trying to help those in need

Nenow says the service is already struggling.

"What we do know is that senior programs have been underfunded for a long time while the senior population has increased. In Pennsylvania (the state with the third highest senior population in the nation), most Meals on Wheels programs have been flat funded by the government for the past eight years, even though the cost of food has risen 25 percent. These cuts together with the projected budgeted lottery revenue that is, at this point, an unknown, will make things worse. Across the board federal budget cuts do not make sense, but prioritizing these cuts based on basic human need and survival do," she wrote in a recent press release.

The sequestration cuts also slashed funds for preventing domestic violence, child care for poor working parents, law enforcement, and other services and programs.

"It is extremely frustrating and disheartening for those of us in the nonprofit sector," says Nenow. "How do we continue to stretch these dollars? How can the government consciously perform a straight budget cut across so many needed programs? Why have they not prioritized the cuts?"

The impact of cuts to Meals on Wheels

In Pennsylvania, 15.6 percent of the population some 1.9 million people are age 65 or older. Their numbers have grown by 2.1 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census.

Thousands of these people who worked hard all their lives rely on home-delivered meals to be able to stay in their own homes.

"These are seniors who are living independently in their homes with the help of home-delivered meals and Senior Center lunches. If they did not receive meals, many would not be able to continue living in their homes and could end up in a nursing home environment, which would cost the state of Pennsylvania and the federal government even more money," Nenow says.

"Allowing our seniors to live in their homes with support services in place, is a cost-effective use of government dollars," she says.

Meals on Wheels serves those over the age of 60, or disabled people under the age of 60 who are unable to cook for themselves and are, for the most part, homebound.

Nenow explains how the funding, already insufficient, will impact the frail elderly.

The cuts will further burden the program, Nenow says.

"The major problem is that senior programs have been underfunded for a long time while the senior population is increasing. In Pennsylvania, most MOW programs have been flat funded for the past eight years," she says. "These cuts will make things worse. Pennsylvania has the third-highest elderly population in the country behind West Virginia and Florida."

More questions than answers

"For many of the MOW programs in Pennsylvania, it will take some time to see the reality as it trickles down to us. For example, will our contracts with the state to provide home-delivered meals automatically be cut 5.1 percent? Or will the state transfer funds from other areas within the state budget? We don't really know," she says. "We also don't know how many of our clients will face fewer services, including loss or cuts of SNAP (food stamp) benefits and in-home care services. As of now, I anticipate at least another year of flat funding."