WASHINGTON ― If the federal government remains partially shut down for several more months, as President Donald Trump suggested Friday, millions of people could lose food assistance.
More than 38 million Americans receive monthly food benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is often known as food stamps and is arguably the federal government’s most important anti-poverty program. If Trump keeps the government shut down through February, benefits could stop.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture runs the program and is one of the federal agencies that shut down last month as part of Trump’s strategy to force Congress to pay for a giant wall on the Mexican border. It’s just one of dozens of programs ― including tax credit refunds for the working poor ― that will be disrupted if the shutdown continues.
The USDA has said only that it has enough leftover money to pay for January’s benefits. Its reserve fund amounts to less than the total projected cost of February’s benefits. After February, it’s possible there would be nothing. Other food programs that serve seniors, mothers and children could also be affected.
Spokespeople for the USDA did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday.
“The Trump administration has kept relatively quiet about the threat to food assistance.”
President Trump said Friday that the shutdown, which is already two weeks old, could go on for months or even a year. Since he has already taken credit for the shutdown, and since his border security demand is so vague ― does he want a wall, or a fence? ― it’s hard to see how the situation could change unless Trump caves.
A shutdown lasting many months or a year would be a massive policy experiment. Yanking food benefits from millions of people would probably result in a lot more hunger. Outright starvation hasn’t been a public health problem in the U.S. since the food stamp program expanded in the 1960s and 1970s ― what happens if food stamps suddenly disappear? There is a far more robust network of food banks than in the 1960s, but there’s no way charity could make up the difference between a huge national program and no program at all.
The Trump administration has kept relatively quiet about the threat to food assistance. When a funding lapse approached in 2015, the Obama administration’s USDA warned lawmakers that there wasn’t enough money for the following month’s benefits.
The present situation is slightly different than 2015 since the agency seems to have a larger funding reserve this time around. But a USDA employee who is not authorized to speak publicly told HuffPost some within the agency suspected current leadership didn’t want to talk about the possible negative effect on SNAP because doing so would highlight the shutdown’s harm to struggling Americans instead of furloughed government employees. Trump has vilified federal workers and claimed they’re all Democrats.
One option to prevent the benefit cutoff would be for the USDA to adopt a new legal interpretation and say that SNAP recipients are entitled to benefits even if Congress hasn’t appropriated annual funds for the program, since SNAP has been authorized for the next five years by the farm bill.
There’s no doubt that even a partial reduction in benefits in February would have a big effect on individual beneficiaries and the economy. When Democrats cut SNAP benefit amounts by about 13 percent in 2013, to pay for improvements to the National School Lunch Program, the impact reverberated through both low-income households and corporate boardrooms.
“There’s no doubt that even a partial reduction in benefits in February would have a big effect on individual beneficiaries and the economy.”
The way SNAP works is the government distributes food benefits on debit cards that program enrollees then redeem for food items at grocery stores ― meaning retailers benefit substantially from the program, which costs more than $60 billion annually. When the benefit cut occurred in 2013, chains like Walmart and Target cut their earnings forecasts. Dollar General stockholders have claimed in a lawsuit the firm had failed to notify them how badly business would be harmed by other SNAP reductions.
Local media has been covering the shutdown’s possible threat to food assistance since last week. More than a million low-income Georgians could lose their benefits in February, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported Thursday. An official with Alabama’s food aid program told a local TV station they expected more guidance from the USDA at the end of the month. Arizona food banks are worried about a surge in demand if the government shutdown continues into February.
The possibility of lost food assistance caught the White House by surprise, the Washington Post reported Friday. Administration spokespeople did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday.