SNAP, WIC, Section 8: Separating fact from fiction in the government shutdown

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SNAP, WIC, Section 8: Separating fact from fiction in the government shutdown
Volunteers, many of them furloughed government workers themselves, hand out food and supplies at the World Central Kitchen in Washington. (Source: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik/AP)

UPDATE: On Friday, President Trump announced a deal to reopen the government for three weeks, and fully fund agencies that had been closed until Feb. 15. This story will update as funding implications for SNAP and WIC become clear. An inquiry has been made to the Department of Housing and Urban Development regarding Section 8 contracts.

(Gray News) – Through the fog of social media and second-hand information, it can be hard to get a firm hand on just what is being affected by the government shutdown.

Hundreds of thousands of federal workers have already missed paychecks, and recipients of critical programs like food stamps and housing subsidies are worried about how long they’ll be able to continue to count on them.

The uncertainty has manifested itself in a number of different ways, from fake fliers warning people that food stamps soon won’t be honored at stores to home recipes for baby formula circulating on Facebook.

But in some respects it’s important not to panic yet. The shutdown is irrelevant to whether a store accepts food stamps and doctors sharply discourage you from making your own baby formula.

Here are some facts to clarify some concerns surrounding the shutdown:

  • FIRST SEE: The government issued a statement earlier this month with a comprehensive breakdown of how nutrition assistance programs are being affected by the shutdown.
  • SNAP benefits are funded through February: If you use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly known as food stamps, in most cases your EBT card was already loaded on Sunday with next month’s benefits. Only if the shutdown continues into March does funding for the program run out.
  • There are no time restrictions on them: People using SNAP are being advised to budget their benefits because, of course, if March does arrive and the government hasn’t reopened, it’s presumed that no fresh benefits will be loaded onto EBT cards. Anything suggesting that you need to use your benefits before February arrives, or that you can’t budget them out into March, is wrong. Benefits only expire if they haven’t been used for a whole year.
  • There may still be ways to fund some March benefits, even if the government stays closed: The Department of Agriculture (USDA) has only announced that benefits are secure through February, but it’s possible that some state governments could fill in the funding gap for their citizens, or that some other kind of budgetary workaround could be figured out for the 39 million people who receive SNAP benefits. Nothing is guaranteed after February, though. 
  • School meals are funded through March: In its notice earlier this month, the USDA said it had funds for January and two additional months for school meals and the Child and Adult Care Food Program, “consistent with the standard practice of funding these programs on a quarterly basis.”
  • WIC is expected to be funded through February: The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, has about $600 million to keep operating through February, according to the USDA. But the program, which helps more than half of infants born in the U.S., is not a fixed entitlement like SNAP, meaning it’s not as simple as saying what funding covers what time period - the funding is used as needed. That means that as it runs low, it may need to be rationed. The USDA says it “will continue to work with states to make resources available to the extent possible.” For now the National WIC Association says clinics remain open and is warning mothers not to try to use formula substitutes or dilute it to make it last.
  • Many Section 8 contracts have already expired: According to the Campaign for Housing and Community Development Funding (CHCDF), 221 rental assistance contracts have already expired, affecting about 12,000 low-income households. It says that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) “is determining whether it has any available funds that could be obligated to renew contracts that expired in December.” It’s not clear if there could be any similar funds for contracts coming up in January and February.
  • Housing Choice Vouchers are funded through February: If the shutdown continues, payments under the Housing Choice Vouchers program, the most-widely used housing assistance program with around 2.2 million recipients, would end in March, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
  • Rents could go up: Without the vouchers, some landlords could seek to double or triple rent payments, according to the CBPP. Other large property owners, without their Section 8 contracts with the government, are being asked by HUD to “use their individual funding reserves, where available, to cover shortfalls.” This puts the burden on property owners to use their personal funds for costs like mortgages, insurance, property taxes, and property upkeep the government contracts typically pay them for. But it could also, according to CHCDF, possibly cause them to “increase rent burdens on fixed-income populations.” The president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Diane Yentel, said earlier this month that, “HUD has asked owners of these properties to dip into their savings, if they have any, to cover the costs. Some will be able to do so, but not forever, and some have already communicated to their tenants that rent hikes are coming.”
  • Or there could be evictions: Without the voucher subsidies landlords could “even try to evict vulnerable families, seniors and others” according to the CBPP, and Yentel said that the contract expirations “put the homes of nearly 70,000 low-income renters at risk of serious rent hikes and evictions."
  • No guarantees from HUD: Unlike the USDA, HUD itself has not been issuing communications through the shutdown. The executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, Sunia Zaterman, said that, "Without a guarantee from HUD that funding will be available in March, many Public Housing Authorities will need to notify landlords and residents next month that delayed payments are a possibility. Anxious residents and landlords fearful of missed payments, combined with other cascading impacts due to lack of staffing at HUD, including program grants not being renewed and affordable housing development deals not being approved, amount to an unmitigated disaster for millions of low-income families.”

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