The Government Shutdown and how it’s Hurting the Vulnerable

The Government Shutdown and how it’s Hurting the Vulnerable January 15, 2019

I want to take a moment to talk again about the government shutdown, how it’s hurting the vulnerable, and what we can do to help.

It is very important to remember, first of all, that this simply isn’t a terrible accident resulting from the House and Senate not being able to agree. At this point, it’s deliberate posturing using our national parks,  food-insecure citizens and thousands of government workers as pawns. Senate Majority Leader McConnell endorsed a government funding bill that did not fund the president’s wall back in December, but now that Democrats have a majority in the House he’s suddenly refusing to consider any such bill.  Senator Graham, of all people, begged the president to accept even a stopgap bill that would reopen part of the government, but the president would not have it. The majority of Americans have said they do not want the multi-billion dollar border wall, without funding for which the president says he will not re-open the government even for “months or years.” What we are witnessing right now is a demonstration of how far the president and his yes-men are willing to go to assert dominance over everybody else.

The biggest new announcement is that the USDA is awarding February Supplemental Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits early,  in January. Come February the program will have nothing. If you have an EBT card, you’ll get your February EBT benefits in January instead of whenever in February you usually would, and then you’ll get no more until at least March. Depending on when the shutdown ends, there may be no more for a long time. The exact date that February EBT money will appear on your card is varying a bit from state to state; it will be on or before the 20th of January here in Ohio.

For people who don’t know very much about the SNAP program, I want to stress that this is not a negligible amount of aid that is going to disappear– and, as if threatening the hungry weren’t enough, SNAP recipients are not the only people who are going to suffer because of this. SNAP benefits pay for about 10% of the groceries bought in this country. That’s 10% of the nation’s grocery money, suddenly not being available come February and for an indefinite period thereafter. People tend to act as if a social safety net for the poor is simply bad for the economy, but actually suddenly decimating the nation’s budget for spending at local supermarkets is probably going to wreak havoc. Remember, you can’t spend SNAP on Amazon Grocery or the like, and you can’t spend it on anything but food. You have to spend it in person, on cold food items only– you can’t get a hot meal at a deli counter with it, for example, but you might be able to get one of the day-old Rotisserie chickens that have been put in the cooler. If you’re buying twenty dollars’ worth of food and also five dollars’ worth of toilet paper and toothpaste, that EBT card will pay for the food and you’ll have to pay for the other items in cash. That EBT payment goes into the grocery store’s till the same as the cash does and the store gets the full twenty-five. SNAP disappearing means grocery stores will lose 10% of their income. Jeff Bezos is not going to feel the effects of this. The manager of your local supermarket will. His employees will. Their families will. Chain stores already considering pulling out of a location and making a new food desert will. Eventually, the whole economy will. But of more immediate importance is that a huge number of hard-working families will suddenly have to go hungry come February.

Those of you who want to help: I usually tell people that the best time to give to food banks and check up on your low-income friends, is at the end of the month and right at the beginning before paychecks come in and the EBT benefits reload. SNAP benefits are not meant to last all month in the first place; that’s why they’re called “supplemental.” Despite most people’s best efforts to shop wisely and be careful– and, despite what you might have heard, SNAP recipients are usually very careful– SNAP benefits tend to last about two weeks. So the need is going to set in in the middle of February and it’s likely to get worse from there.

If you want to make a donation to a food pantry, soup kitchen or the like, the best donation is usually cash. Then someone who works there can shop for the specific items they most need. If you’re going to donate food, remember that there’s usually a great need for shelf-stable proteins like canned beans, canned fish and shelf-stable milk. Donate cooking oil, condiments and seasonings, so people can actually make edible meals out of the other items they’re provided. Donate low-sodium canned vegetables and canned fruit packed in its own juice because it’s healthier; shelf-stable juices to drink are also very useful for the vitamins, but make sure it’s real juice and not corn syrup. Donate wholesome snacks like granola bars. If the place you’re giving to accepts fresh food, give them fresh fruits and vegetables. Obviously, don’t give anything that’s expired, damaged or recalled.

In addition to the situation with SNAP, the shutdown has already led to a large number of government workers collecting a paycheck of zero dollars. Members of the Coast Gaurd, for example, have to show up for work whether they get paid or not or they will be considered AWOL, and they got no pay this month. And they are not typically paid well enough to have emergency money put away in the first place. My friend whose husband recently retired from the Coast Guard encourages everyone to sign this petition and if you know someone in the Coast Guard, see how they’re doing and offer to help with groceries and utility bills if you can.

If you happen to be at an airport, members of the TSA aren’t getting paid either. I saw a post on the author Mary Doria Russell’s facebook page that said they can’t accept cash gifts of any kind but can accept gift cards to eateries at the airport. They can use these for lunch, and have a little more money left to feed their families at home.

Also remember that our national parks are being trashed. I’ve read stories about groups of people organizing to volunteer to clean them. Maybe you and your friends can help as well.

It is ridiculous and enraging that we are in this situation in the first place, and who is to blame is clearly visible. But since we can’t make it go away ourselves, it’s important to look around for any way we can help support the vulnerable and care for our community. We don’t choose the times we live in, but we have a certain amount of choice on what to do. What we ought to do, is try to have a positive impact.

(image via Pixabay) 


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