With The Shutdown Over — For Now — The Country's Neediest Are Still Scrambling
The full effect of the monthlong partial government shutdown is still rippling across the United States. In states like Pennsylvania, local officials remain in crisis mode as their neediest residents scramble to keep food on the shelves.
Daniel Davenport, 45, cobbles together a living by working part time in music production and relying on food stamps.
In January, the $182 he counts on every month was loaded twice on his government-issued Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program debit card.
"I thought, 'Oh, wow, that's like a bonus,' " said Davenport, who lives in Montgomery County, Pa. "Although it's not."
It's not, he found out, after watching a local television report on the federal government paying out February's food stamps early. At the time, there was no clear end in sight to the government shutdown, which pushed officials to devise the workaround.
Right now, frankly, all of our energy is trying to figure out what we can do to help people get through to their next March payment.
"Which was really important," said Dottie Rosenbaum, who studies food stamps at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Because in the event that the shutdown continued, it protected SNAP, and it ensured that individuals would receive SNAP benefits for the month of February, which otherwise would not have been ensured."
But here's the rub: The federal government reopened a week after the double payment. And now, the 42 million Americans on food stamps have to wait until March before their next round of benefits.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture runs SNAP, but states are in charge of distributing benefits. The majority of those who receive SNAP are children, the elderly or people who struggle with a disability. Government statistics show that the average benefit for individuals is $125 a month.
For Davenport, his next SNAP disbursement is more than five weeks away. He already used most of February's payment stocking his pantry.
"Cereals, oatmeals, soups, because it's winter. Like, canned spaghetti, canned ravioli, canned lasagna, stuff that I can freeze," he said.
The disruption to benefits has Secretary Teresa Miller of Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services on edge.
"Right now, frankly, all of our energy is trying to figure out what we can do to help people get through to their next March payment," she said.
Encouraging food bank contributions
Miller is urging Pennsylvania residents to donate this month to their local food banks since they're expecting a surge in demand. Miller says she has been chipping in herself.
"I wrote a check that was a little higher than what I normally write, because I'm concerned about people this month," she said.
Officials in states around the country attempted to inform SNAP clients about how to budget for the double payment, but in Pennsylvania, Miller acknowledged, letters did not reach recipients until after the change. She blames the logistical nightmare on the federal government.
About 90 percent of those on SNAP nationwide will go more than 40 days between food payments, according to Rosenbaum.
"So that will put a strain at the end of February and the beginning of March for many households across the country," she said.
At a food pantry in Lansdale, Pa., Christi Schatz lined up for donated food this week. She usually uses a mix of SNAP and disability benefits to buy groceries. But she has depleted both. She was counting on getting a payment this month.
She thought, like many others, that the double payment was a glitch.
"Right now, because I don't have my food stamps, I had to either come up to the pantry to get food or my mom helped me with getting groceries," said Schatz, 40, who does not work due to a medical condition.
In Harrisburg, meanwhile, Miller is pleading for politicians in Washington to consider how their decisions impact some of the country's most at-risk people.
"I hope they're hearing from people that have been impacted and are still being impacted and can come to a solution that doesn't further hurt people that are caught in the middle," said Miller.
Miller is filled with dread thinking about Feb. 15, which is when the short-term budget deal will expire. If Democratic leaders and President Trump remain at odds over funding a border wall, the federal government may shut down again. And Trump says he is ready to do that if his border security proposals fail to garner enough congressional support.
Federal officials have told states that they can release March benefits early. But in Pennsylvania, Miller worries that this would only trigger the same problem with food stamps all over again.
"It's incredibly frustrating," Miller said. "If another shutdown occurs, this situation is only going to get worse for the people caught in the middle."
This story comes from Keystone Crossroads, a statewide public media initiative reporting on cities across Pennsylvania.
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