Spotlight Exclusives

What the Shutdown Means for Federal Benefits for Low-Income Americans

Spotlight Staff Spotlight Staff, posted on

As the federal government shutdown stretches into its third week, big impacts are looming not just for federal workers and their families but for those who rely on government programs for assistance as well.

Recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) got some good news this week when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it will use existing funding to cover the program’s 38 million recipients through the end of February.

USDA has encouraged states to provide benefits for February earlier than usual in order take advantage of funding that is set to expire on January 20. However, if no deal is reached the program would have to draw on reserve funds which would not be enough to cover benefits for March in full.

The status of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provides cash benefits and employment services to low-income households, is slightly more complex. Federal reauthorization for the program expired in December, meaning that states are relying on a variety of different means to keep benefits in place.

“There are three ways states can fill the funding gap,” LaDonna Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained to Spotlight, “If they haven’t used all their first quarter allocations, if they have carryover funds they can use, or they can use state funds which they are required to have some of.”

The situation for each state is different, but the combination of potential funding sources means that states are likely to continue being able to provide benefits – at least in the near term. But the longer the shutdown drags on, the fewer sources of revenue states will have to draw on, and the higher the likelihood of disruptions.

In a blog post last week, Elizabeth Lower-Basch of the Center for Law and Social Policy encouraged states to make plans to continue TANF payments, explaining that during a previous shutdown Arizona “unnecessarily stopped issuing benefits briefly in 2013, causing great harm to low-income families in that state.”

Spotlight will continue to monitor these issues in the days ahead.

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