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Government shutdown takes heavy toll on federal food stamps office

As the shutdown stretches on, only 5 percent of USDA's office of Food and Nutrition Services is working.

CREDIT: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
CREDIT: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Staffing for the nation’s food stamps office has been almost completely scaled back during the ongoing partial government shutdown, a reduction that could hurt low-income families and individuals reliant upon the agency for assistance.

Upwards of 800,000 federal employees are impacted by the shutdown, more than a third of all government staffers. President Donald Trump has indicated that the government may remain partially closed until congressional lawmakers capitulate on funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. With the Senate largely unwilling to comply and Democrats set to take over the House in January, progress has been sluggish.

That has left a number of government services in flux, including the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees crucial food assistance programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). According to official USDA shutdown plans, some 61 percent of department employees have stayed working through the first week of the shutdown, with that number now set to drop dramatically.

Wednesday marked the shutdown’s fifth day, bringing a steep decrease in staffing for the department’s office of Food and Nutrition Services. That office oversees Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in addition to SNAP. As of Wednesday, office staffing has been reduced to 5 percent of its normal capacity, with only 68 of 1,493 staffers currently safe from furlough.

In a statement released on December 21, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue downplayed the impact of the shutdown on USDA.

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“There may be a lapse in funding for the federal government, but that will not relieve USDA of its responsibilities for safeguarding life and property through the critical services we provide,” the secretary said.

A number of USDA efforts are continuing despite the shutdown, including meat, poultry, and egg inspections, along with some farm payments and Forest Service law enforcement. Households eligible for SNAP will also receive their SNAP benefits for the month of January. But other services, including longer-term farm loans and forest fuels reduction activities, are currently suspended.

Resources for food assistance are also compromised. Both WIC and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations are currently operating based on available resources, with a longer-term shutdown likely to complicate those services.

Local organizations are working to reassure communities and maintain up-to-date information as the shutdown drags on. D.C. Hunger Solutions, which works to help low-income residents in Washington, D.C., tweeted on Wednesday that the city would remain on-hand to help residents despite the federal government’s impasse.

“Don’t worry, DC and @DCHunger are open even during this federal government shutdown,” the organization wrote, saying that SNAP and WIC assistance is still “operating as normal.”

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Turning to local resources will become increasingly necessary the longer the shutdown continues, especially for programs like WIC. It is unclear how long past January SNAP benefits might be available. The School Lunch, School Breakfast, Child and Adult Care Feeding, Special Milk, and Summer Food Service are also both set to run through February, although again with no indicator of how a longer shutdown might impact those programs.

For Americans not reliant upon food assistance, the shutdown is still beginning to take a toll. Federal employees are eyeing their expected January 11 payday with concern, as that date marks the first pay period during the shutdown. Trump has indicated that federal workers support his fight to fund a border wall, but many have angrily taken to Twitter to express the shutdown’s impact on their families, especially those who live “paycheck to paycheck.”

Public lands are also bearing the brunt of the political stalemate. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is operating on carried-over funds, money for the Interior Department is in flux along with USDA, leaving national parks and monuments largely unstaffed and exposed. The National Parks Service told ThinkProgress that efforts are being made to keep public spaces open, but that “services that require staffing and maintenance” are not operational during the shutdown.

House Democrats have indicated that they will present a bill to re-open the government on January 3 when they take power. But that bill is unlikely to contain the White House’s demanded funding for the wall, making it unclear if the president will agree to the proposal.