Food Stamps and Rental Assistance Are Now in Jeopardy as Trump’s Government Shutdown Continues

The shutdown’s impact on the poor is about to get a lot worse.

Sarah Lahm January 8, 2019

Workers across the country are facing furloughs and struggling to make ends meet. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As the gov­ern­ment shut­down drags on past the three-week mark with no clear end in sight, the cri­sis con­tin­ues to impact fed­er­al employ­ees. From Trans­porta­tion Safe­ty Admin­is­tra­tion agents to nation­al park ser­vice staff, work­ers across the coun­try are fac­ing fur­loughs and strug­gling to make ends meet while elect­ed offi­cials remain at log­ger­heads over the fed­er­al bud­get and Pres­i­dent Trump’s insis­tence on more fund­ing for a bor­der wall.

“I feel like sending Trump my bills so he can pay them for me.”

A recent Wash­ing­ton Post report doc­u­ment­ed how tough the shut­down has been on small towns and cities across the Unit­ed States, where local economies often rely heav­i­ly on the incomes and pur­chas­ing pow­er of fed­er­al employ­ees. One city pro­filed is Ogden, Utah where thou­sands of res­i­dents work for agen­cies such as the IRS or the U.S. For­est Ser­vice and, as a result, have sud­den­ly found them­selves with­out an income, at least temporarily.

While some of these work­ers make far less than the aver­age $85,000 for gov­ern­ment employ­ees,” accord­ing to the Wash­ing­ton Post, those pay­checks dri­ve local economies.” This means local busi­ness­es are also strug­gling dur­ing the shut­down, as their cus­tomer base has dried up.

There­sa Jojo­la works for the fed­er­al Office of the Spe­cial Trustee for Amer­i­can Indi­ans in Albu­querque, New Mex­i­co. Although she works full-time as an office sup­port per­son, answer­ing phones and oth­er­wise help­ing the office run smooth­ly, she lives pay­check to pay­check. Jojo­la also says she has recent­ly been deal­ing with car issues and a death in the fam­i­ly — sit­u­a­tions that have drained her finan­cial reserves.

I am kind of hav­ing a dif­fi­cult time finan­cial­ly,” Jojo­la tells In These Times. She often sup­ple­ments her income by sell­ing tra­di­tion­al Native cloth­ing that she makes, but, since most peo­ple in her com­mu­ni­ty are also gov­ern­ment employ­ees, she believes that this will not be a viable option. Instead, she says, if the shut­down con­tin­ues, her bills prob­a­bly will not get paid.

Jojo­la is not alone. Many of the nation’s most vul­ner­a­ble cit­i­zens, includ­ing chil­dren, the elder­ly, and peo­ple who live in pover­ty, are also like­ly to pay a steep price dur­ing this shut­down, the third one to occur dur­ing Trump’s time in office.

Take SNAP ben­e­fits. SNAP, or Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram, pro­vides food stamps to fam­i­lies who live at or below 130 per­cent of the pover­ty lev­el, as defined by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. As the shut­down drags on, those ben­e­fits are in dan­ger of being can­celed for the approx­i­mate­ly 43 mil­lion Amer­i­cans who rely on them. SNAP is fund­ed by the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, which is part of the 25 per­cent of the gov­ern­ment direct­ly impact­ed by the shutdown.

SNAP is fund­ed through Jan­u­ary, but the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture does not have suf­fi­cient funds to cov­er all of Feb­ru­ary,” accord­ing to Rolling Stone. As of Jan­u­ary 7, callers to the program’s 1 – 800 num­ber will sim­ply hear this mes­sage: We are cur­rent­ly not oper­a­tional due to the lapse in appro­pri­a­tions which has result­ed in the shut­down of many fed­er­al gov­ern­ment agencies.”

Over half of all fam­i­lies with chil­dren who receive SNAP ben­e­fits rep­re­sent the work­ing poor, as they are employed but do not earn enough to cov­er basic liv­ing expens­es. Many of these fam­i­lies also include elder­ly and dis­abled peo­ple, accord­ing to research from the non­par­ti­san Cen­ter on Bud­get and Pol­i­cy Priorities.

The gov­ern­ment shut­down also has the poten­tial to put the brakes on rental assis­tance pro­vid­ed by the Unit­ed States Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment, or HUD. A Jan­u­ary 2019 update post­ed to the web­site of the Nation­al Low Income Hous­ing Coali­tion, a hous­ing rights advo­ca­cy group, indi­cates that HUD offi­cials are scram­bling to fig­ure out how to hon­or con­tracts between the agency and the land­lords that man­age afford­able hous­ing units across the coun­try — a sit­u­a­tion that may put low-income ten­ants at risk.”

Rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, as well as the elder­ly and dis­abled, are also at risk, with no indi­ca­tion yet as to whether or not the gov­ern­ment will be able to con­tin­ue pay­ing rental assis­tance or vouch­ers for low- and very low-income ten­ants” while the shut­down drags on.

Vis­i­tors to the HUD web­site will see a bright red ban­ner at the top of the screen, car­ry­ing this alert: Due to the lapse in Con­gres­sion­al Appro­pri­a­tions for Fis­cal Year 2019, the U.S. Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment (HUD) is closed.” Nation­al­ly, over 4 mil­lion low income peo­ple count on HUD for help with hous­ing costs.

In response to con­cerns about missed hous­ing pay­ments, the fed­er­al Office of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment has report­ed­ly advised work­ers to either ask for a reduc­tion in rent or try bar­ter­ing with their land­lords. Oth­er key func­tions of gov­ern­ment that ben­e­fit the poor and vul­ner­a­ble, includ­ing Social Secu­ri­ty and Medicare, will remain in oper­a­tion as they have already received fund­ing allo­ca­tions for this year.

The shut­down is now one of the longest in U.S. his­to­ry, at three weeks and count­ing. Pres­i­dent Trump has repeat­ed­ly attempt­ed to frame the shut­down as a sac­ri­fice will­ing­ly made by employ­ees who sup­port his hard­line push for more fund­ing for a bor­der wall. That might be a tough sell for the mil­lions of Amer­i­cans — includ­ing the work­ing poor — who depend on help from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.

For her part, Jojo­la wants noth­ing to do with the bor­der wall. Instead, she says, I feel like send­ing Trump my bills so he can pay them for me.” 

Sarah Lahm is a Min­neapo­lis-based writer and for­mer Eng­lish Instruc­tor. She is a 2015 Pro­gres­sive mag­a­zine Edu­ca­tion Fel­low and blogs about edu­ca­tion at bright​lights​mall​ci​ty​.com.
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