As of this publication, the United States is embroiled in the longest ever (partial) government shutdown. President Donald Trump told the leaders of the Democratic Party that he would shut down the government unless the legislative branch approved $5.7 billion for a wall/steel fence that Mexico was supposed to fund.
The Democrats didn’t bite.
That may be because the Senate voted unanimously to pass a government funding bill before the holidays. It could be because there is no evidence that a wall at the border would actually stop any of the problems that Trump cites when describing why a wall is critical to the nation. It might be that the concept of a wall is incredibly unpopular in public opinion polls. And who knows? They might be sitting pretty on a landslide election that flipped control of the House of Representatives, giving them leverage in a coequal branch of government.
It is a mystery.
What isn’t mysterious is that the government shutdown — that the president took ownership of in December before Democrats officially took control of the House — impacts the nation in significant ways, from the despoiling of our national parks to somehow making air travel worse than it already was. Approximately 800,000 federal employees weren’t paid as of Friday, Jan. 11, even though roughly half that number had to report for work anyway.
So far, those workers are some of the hardest hit — missing paychecks, missing rent payments and generally throwing their lives into disarray during and after the holiday season, a time of already stretched budgets.
However, as the standoff continues, critical benefits to the most vulnerable Americans are at risk, and the local agencies that distribute those services to homeless, low-income and disabled people are stuck in a state of limbo.
On Wednesday, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it was taking steps to ensure that people who receive food benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would continue to be able to eat in February. Previously, there was no money to distribute to people who rely on federal assistance to top up their food budgets for the month.
Not anymore, although it’s not as simple as just approving the funds.
To get around the whole “federal government hasn’t approved money” problem, the USDA instructed states to give benefits for February to folks by Jan. 20. That isn’t as easy as it sounds, said Kelly Stowe, spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
“We can’t just flip a switch and turn on the benefits,” Stowe said.
The state uses a product called Aces to send food benefits to eligible clients. That program has specific days on which it distributes that cash, usually the first or 15th of each month, depending on when the individual qualified for assistance.
Overriding that system isn’t easy, Stowe said, but it is critical in order to get folks the money they need to buy food.
At the same time, it’s hard to tell people what is happening and why. That means that millions of Washingtonians will suddenly receive what looks like new money on their food benefit accounts and may not know why.
That may not seem like a problem until clients have spent down their benefits for February early, leaving people in a hard spot until March.
March is, at present, an important month. Tens of thousands of people get their housing through vouchers administered by the Seattle and King County housing authorities. Those vouchers are safe through the end of February, but come March, all of those people may find themselves unable to pay their landlords.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, approximately 263 units in six project-based complexes have contracts that have either expired or will by the end of February.
SHA isn’t worried — at least not yet, said Kerry Coughlin, spokesperson for the housing authority.
Still, if the government shutdown continues through February, there will be problems. As of Dec. 31, SHA administered 10,557 vouchers. KCHA leased another 12,264 units.
And the shutdown might continue. Unless the Senate majority leader is willing to bring a funding measure to the floor, the decision to fund the government falls on Trump, and he’s said he’s willing to wait it out.
As he told the press, federal employees operating without paychecks will “make adjustments.”
Folks whose food and housing benefits end will adjust their way to hunger and homelessness.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Read the full Jan. 16 - 22 issue.
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