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What's Actually Happening With Food Stamps During the Shutdown

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Correction appended

Washington (This Town)

No matter how long the current government shutdown lasts, it's already raising stress levels for low-income families that might be scraping for food by the end of the month.

The shutdown that began on Oct. 1, after Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives refused to pass a budget bill without a delay in the Affordable Care Act, seems to be in a holding pattern. While schools will probably end up OK, families have reason to worry—causing headaches for schools nevertheless.

Many worry about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, upon which millions rely. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs SNAP, released a shutdown plan that shows dire fates for federal nutrition programs:

  • SNAP is fully funded through October, with $2 billion in contingency funds available for state administrative help.
  • The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, will not receive any additional federal funds. Some states have the ability to prolong funding. A statement from the USDA (see below) estimates that WIC has about a month.
  • The Child Nutrition Programs, which support school breakfast and lunch programs, operate on a monthly cycle, so that will continue at least through October.
  • The Commodity Assistance Programs feel the pain. There is no additional funding and no contingency funding. Same goes for the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. However, as my colleague Lesli A. Maxwell writes over at Learning the Language, Indian school services should remain open.

The WIC fund shortage is especially concerning. WIC provides additional nutritional assistance to pregnant women and new mothers, as well as their children. And as a growing body of research shows, the quality of life in early childhood can cause major developmental and academic differences later in life.

In an emailed statement to Education Week, Bruce Alexander, communications director for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service office, said the following:

"USDA is working with WIC state agencies to use all available funding resources to provide benefits to participants. FNS will be allocating both contingency and carryover funds to state agencies for use in operating their FY 2014 WIC program, in addition to other available funds. Should a lapse extend through late October, federal WIC funding may not be sufficient to cover benefits."

Alexander also confirmed to me that SNAP funds only last through October.

Now, in theory, as the name suggests, SNAP is supposed to be supplemental—families are not supposed to be entirely dependent on it for food. That's a nice suggestion and demonstrably true, but might also be entirely unrealistic; SNAP allows families to spend what little money they have on important things that aren't food—school supplies, daycare, maybe a new air conditioner. If WIC does run out, that will be one more hardship for low-income families to endure.

Even if the shutdown ended tomorrow, though, it will have further reinforced to those that constantly worry about feeding their families, how tenuous federal help can be. These safety net programs have no guaranteed or even seemingly guaranteed longevity in the way that Social Security does. Republicans have consistently targeted SNAP for cuts, and each budget fight presents a new opportunity.

(See Education Week's full coverage of the government shutdown.)

Here's another thing: The shutdown started today almost as a curiosity, like a comet unseen in 17 years. It came with stories about the World War II memorial, and about the Panda Cam at the National Zoo, both in Washington.

Those stories provide a distraction from the fact that many federal departments have shut down their websites and have limited communications at a time when both are needed most. The shutdown has severed Americans from the bureaucratic operations upon which millions depend, likely leaving them to do their own digging for information or rely upon a scrambling wave of journalists. To use a colloquialism: Ain't nobody got time for that.

If the goal of House Republicans was to have less government, then it seems they've achieved a resounding success.

Here's the full text of the USDA's SNAP shutdown plan:


Correction: An earlier version of this post confused the funds remaining in SNAP with the date those funds expire. The UDSA estimates that SNAP funding will run out at the end of this month.

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