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More than 38 million people are on food stamps. The government shutdown could hit them hard.

The government is guaranteeing funding for food stamps through February. After that they don’t have a plan.

Brooklyn residents receive free food as part of a Bowery Mission outreach program.
John Moore/Getty Images

As the government’s partial shutdown drags on with no clear end in sight, millions of America’s most vulnerable citizens are in danger of being left to go hungry.

The Department of Agriculture, among the nine federal agencies that shut down on December 21, is now guaranteeing funding for the nation’s largest food aid program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), through February. After that, the agency doesn’t have a game plan to support the more than 38 million people on the program — but is looking into other options.

Congress has appropriated funding for SNAP, commonly known as food stamps, through January, according to the USDA. After that, the department is using a provision that allows the government to make obligated payments within 30 days of a lapse in funding, working with states to disburse aid for February before January 20.

SNAP also has $3 billion emergency fund — but that won’t be able to cover even two-thirds of the program in March. In September 2018, the most recent month with data available, states disbursed $4.7 billion in food aid through SNAP.

In other words, unless the government reopens before the end of February, millions of Americans living below the poverty line could see a cut to their food aid.

Trump and Congress have been at a stalemate over government spending for 18 days, with no sign of a deal. The conflict comes over Trump’s demand for $5 billion in border wall funding, which Democrats refuse to sign on to. House Democrats, who came into the majority January 3, have passed multiple spending bills to fund the government — without the border wall — which Trump has rejected. Just last week the president quipped the impasse could last months, or even years.

With each passing day, the shutdown threatens the livelihoods of the poorest Americans more.

Most people on food stamps are children or older adults

For millions of Americans, food stamp programs are the last resort. The majority of American adults receiving benefits live far below the poverty line, going in and out of low-paying jobs that have a lot of turnover.

Food stamp recipients are mostly children and older adults or disabled people76 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with children. In 2013, SNAP recipients were roughly 40 percent white, 26 percent black, and 10 percent Hispanic.

Meanwhile, the effects of the shutdown on smaller food assistance programs are already being seen. Staffing cuts, due to the shutdown, have reduced the size of resources allocated to food aid programs by 95 percent.

The Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which serves more than 600,000 low-income seniors, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which serves more than 8 million people, are also running out of federal funding. According to the USDA, those programs can continue with state and local funding.

The possible impacts of reduced food aid are serious; there is strong evidence that SNAP reduces food insecurity. A paper from Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, Lauren Bauer, and Greg Nantz at the Hamilton Project, an economics think tank within the Brookings Institution, found that “SNAP improves health outcomes and households’ financial well-being, and even improves the later-life outcomes of individuals who had access to the program as children.”

Government shutdowns are costly and they hit America’s most vulnerable the hardest

Government shutdowns are expensive — and serious.

Roughly 800,000 government employees have been impacted by the shutdown and likely won’t see back pay until after it’s resolved, a dire situation for those living paycheck to paycheck. As Vox’s Li Zhou reported, those contracted with the federal government, like janitors, may not see backpay at all.

The longer the shutdown goes on, the greater the threat of impacts on everyday Americans — even those not employed by the government.

Just look at 2013, when the government shut down for 16 days. The Office of Management and Budget estimated that the shutdown resulted in 120,000 fewer jobs and cut economic growth by 0.2 to 0.6 percent in the last quarter of 2013. Tax refunds totaling almost $4 billion were delayed, the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program went unfunded, the Food and Drug Administration delayed approval of drugs and medical devices.

Trump’s administration is trying to ease some of the biggest pain points by ensuring food stamps will be funded through February, as well as working to send out tax refunds on time.

But the White House is still not willing to budge on its immigration demands, meaning there’s no sign of a deal to end the shutdown. While the military, Social Security and other benefit payments typically aren’t affected, the impacts of a prolonged shutdown are real — and they will hit hardest for low-income Americans.