Two days after announcing that about 50,000 women and infants would have to go without nutrition assistance due to the government shutdown, North Carolina officials reversed course on Thursday without providing a clear picture of how the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) financing gap had been resolved.
The state’s Department of Health and Human Services announced on Tuesday that the 20 percent of WIC recipients who had not yet been issued October vouchers would have to get their baby formula and other nutritional needs some other way. Federal money for the program had all been spent, it seemed, including the state’s share of a $125 million emergency fund the Department of Agriculture (USDA) had tapped to give WIC programs around the country some breathing room during the shutdown.
But on Thursday, state budget director and veteran conservative activist Art Pope told the Charlotte News & Observer that the program has enough money to issue the remaining vouchers. “It is not clear what changed between Tuesday and Thursday,” the newspaper reported, but it’s possible that Pope is counting on WIC recipients not all cashing in their vouchers. He told the News & Observer that “one reason the program has breathing room is that vouchers aren’t all spent in the month they are issued.”
North Carolina’s WIC program served 264,000 moms and babies in September. Nearly 9 million rely on the program nationwide, and despite the mysterious reversal in North Carolina this week many states see WIC stoppages on the horizon should the shutdown drag on much longer. Budget officials in Michigan and California told Bloomberg this week that they will have to stop food assistance payments in November if the government doesn’t reopen. South Carolina is preparing to put 3,500 state workers on unpaid leave in order to free up money to keep WIC running.
Programs that serve the poor nationwide have been whiplashed by a series of conflicting announcements about their funding levels since the government shut down early last week. Should the shutdown persist another six weeks, as a proposal yesterday from House Republicans would suggest, a wide swathe of safety net programs would be forced to close. Domestic violence programs, home heating aid programs, welfare, and schools that rely on federal money would all be undermined or outright stopped should the shutdown continue into next month. Work training programs tied to food stamps will also run out of money, potentially booting eligible people off of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).