Tens of millions of vulnerable Americans would lose their food stamps benefits if Republicans bent on defunding Planned Parenthood force the second government shutdown of the Obama era next week, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) warned on Tuesday.
Unlike the 2013 shutdown when cash reserves allowed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to be disbursed as normal, “USDA will not have the funding necessary for SNAP benefits in October and will be forced to stop providing benefits within the first several days of October,” a spokeswoman told the Associated Press. The agency notified state SNAP administrators on Friday that they should not begin the process of doling out October’s food stamps dollars this week as they normally would.
Without a deal, funding for normal government operations will run out at the end of September. In response to the news that a shutdown would cut off food stamps to as many as 45 million people, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) issued a statement saying the way to avoid a shutdown is for Democrats to get on board with cutting off federal funding for women’s healthcare. “The best way to ensure SNAP recipients receive needed support is to vote for the [continuing resolution],” Roberts told the Huffington Post. “I’m prepared to do so, and if members are worried about SNAP funding, they should too.”
The funding measure Roberts referenced would zero out federal funds to Planned Parenthood, the national women’s health organization that’s been smeared by pro-life activists as improperly profiting off the sale of aborted fetal tissue. Many of Roberts’ House colleagues have pledged to shut down the government if the group doesn’t have its funding cut off. State lawmakers in some parts of the country have already moved to restrict the group’s ability to provide a wide range of health services to low-income women who depend on Planned Parenthood clinics. In a quarter of all the counties where the group has a presence, the clinics are the only source of affordable contraceptive services for women of little means.
The 2013 government shutdown caused disruptions in a variety of federal services including the job training programs that unemployed people rely on to fulfill the eligibility requirements of SNAP. But the money for food itself was able to continue flowing because the USDA had sufficient cash in reserve to put the appropriate funds on peoples’ cards. That isn’t the case this time, lawmakers briefed by the agency say.
Cutting off SNAP would mean shooting the U.S. economy in the foot. The benefits more than pay for themselves, generating close to two dollars of economic activity for every dollar of benefits doled out by the USDA. Plugging up the flow of money from the federal government to low-income families to the grocery stores where they shop would have ripple effects on businesses and on tax revenue for public coffers.
The timing of the possible shutdown would exacerbate that natural chain of harmful knock-on effects. Most SNAP beneficiaries have already spent down their full monthly benefit by about midway through any given month. That cycle puts a crunch on grocery stores as well, distorting the hours they can sensibly schedule workers to be in the store and shifting how they stock their shelves. The USDA’s early warning about SNAP being cut off may have some political ramifications in the Congressional tussle over government funding, but it also serves as a more practical heads-up to the economic ecosystem surrounding the food stamps program.