Millions of Americans could go hungry unless there is a quick resolution to the US government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s demand for billions of dollars to fund a border wall against immigrants.
Almost 40 million low-income Americans, including millions of children, parents, elderly people, and those with disabilities, who depend on federal food assistance will not receive it in a few weeks unless the government reopens and passes a budget to continue covering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (Snap), once known as food stamps.
The programme pays about $126 per person each month to low-income Americans, who make up about 14% of the country’s 325m population, costing an average of around $4.8bn a month, according to the US Department of Agriculture, which administers it. But because of the government shutdown, which closed many departments on December 22, the programme now has only $3bn in emergency reserves for February.
California, Florida, New York, Illinois, and Texas, which together pay out 38% of the country’s total Snap benefits, would be most affected if the shutdown drags on.
More than a million low-income Georgians could also lose their benefits in February, while there are similar concerns in many other states across the country.
“People in this country will go hungry,” Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLaura of Connecticut said.
Dottie Rosenbaum, a senior fellow at the Centre for Budget and Policy Priorities, which analyses federal and state government budget policies, said: “If the shutdown continues and USDA [department of agriculture] determines it does not have the authority to extend Snap in the absence of congressional
action, many low-income households would be at risk of serious hunger and hardship.
Trump’s recent comments that the shutdown, involving some 800,000 government workers, could go on for months “if not years” have sparked alarm and have led to charges he was out of touch with the problems of working and poorer Americans.
In 2017, Snap participants redeemed $63bn in benefits for food purchases at 260,000 supermarkets, grocery stores or other food retailers, so if such spending doesn’t continue, many small businesses would also become secondary victims of the shutdown.
Congress has never let funding for Snap run out to the point where the programme defaulted on benefits. During a shutdown under President Barack Obama in 2013, the government came close to not having money to cover benefits, but Congress came through with the funds at the 11th hour.
The department of agriculture is also responsible for distributing $1.2bn in commodities through the Emergency Food Assistance Programme, which provides supplemental food to soup kitchens, food banks, and pantries, and this aid to needy families is also being affected. But the department of
agriculture is just one of a number of the federal agencies that shut down last month as part of Trump’s strategy to force Congress to allocate almost $6bn to build his promised wall.
Thousands of tenants, for example, would face eviction without continued assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This department funds the Housing Choice Voucher Programme, the largest federal rental assistance scheme, helping more than five million people in 2.2m low-income households to find housing and avoid homelessness.
Some employees of the Transportation Security Administration at the country’s airports, who have had to work without pay, have begun staging sick-days. At some point, air travel could grind to a halt, hitting large sectors of the US economy at a time when economists are already concerned about a slowdown. Nine out of 15 federal departments are closed, as well as dozens of agencies, and more than 800,000 public servants and their families are unsure when to expect their next pay cheque.
Julie Burr, a federal contract worker for the Department of Transportation in Kansas City, Missouri, said she isn’t expecting to get paid for hours she has already worked.
That’s because she can’t submit her time sheet since there is no one to approve it in her office.
“I just want the government to be back up and running and I want to get back to work and earn my pay cheque and that’s what I think a lot of people feel like,” she said.
When asked to respond to President Trump saying he “can relate” to government workers who are going without pay, Burr said: “I find it hard to believe that a billionaire could relate to anyone who lives possibly pay cheque to pay cheque, which many of the American people do.”
Those affected in the heartland of America include thousands of farmers, who rely on the department of agriculture as their lender of last resort to help pay bills and stay afloat during the winter. Many farmers are already preparing for the spring planting and banks are not willing to lend to them, leaving the department as their only hope.
But it remains shuttered.
The shutdown is also affecting the economies of local communities that depend on national parks for tourism. The National Park System sees an estimated half a million visitors per day, in winter months, who spend about $19m per day in accommodation, shops and restaurants in nearby communities.
While the 800,000 federal workers on leave or working without pay won’t remotely suffer like lower-income Americans during the shutdown, they will definitely feel the pinch because millions of Americans, even professionals with advanced degrees, are living from pay cheque to pay cheque.
A 2018 report by the US Federal Reserve, for example, found that 40% of American adults don’t have $400 in savings for an emergency. “Four in 10 adults, if faced with an unexpected expense of $400, would either not be able to cover it or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money,” the report said.
An employee with the National Science Foundation underscored this point in an interview. “I am beginning to feel the pinch now and of course if it continues and we miss two or three pay cheques, it will be hard,” she told me. “We are hearing the government may not open for months and that is scary. The Office of Personnel Management, which manages the government’s civilian workforce, offered advice to those in a bind on how to ask creditors for extensions and even suggested workers might barter their services, like doing painting or carpentry, in exchange for paying rent — though it didn’t offer any advice to those without such skills. The agency said later the advice had been “inadvertently” posted.
When asked about a safety net for federal workers losing pay, Trump said: “The safety net will be a strong border, because we’re going to be safe. I’m not talking about economically, but ultimately, economically, I really believe that these people believe in what we’re doing.”
In his Oval Office address on Tuesday night he declared his border wall was “just common sense”. But polls suggest most Americans disagree and are annoyed with the president. About 55% blame either Trump or congressional Republicans for the shutdown and about 35% blame Democrats.