With The Shutdown Over — For Now — The Country's Neediest Are Still Scrambling

Feb 9, 2019
Originally published on February 8, 2019 9:26 pm

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. - Teresa Miller, secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Human Services

"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.

February SNAP benefits were given out early during the partial federal government shutdown. Now many beneficiaries will run out before the next benefit, which is due in March.
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

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.

Another shutdown?

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.

Copyright 2019 WHYY. To see more, visit WHYY.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The full effect of the 35-day government shutdown still ripples across the country. One consequence of the lapse in federal funding is the more than 40 million Americans who receive food stamps have had their regularly scheduled monthly payments disrupted. That is leaving some of the country's poorest families scrambling. Here's more from Bobby Allyn of member station WHYY in Philadelphia.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Daniel Davenport is 45 and lives in suburban Philadelphia, where he works part time in music production. To get by, he relies on SNAP. That's shorthand for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Most people just refer to it as food stamps. In January, the $182 he counts on every month was loaded twice on his government-issued debit card.

DANIEL DAVENPORT: And I actually thought, oh, wow, that's, like, a bonus (laughter) although it's not.

ALLYN: It's not he found out after watching a local TV report on the USDA paying out February's food stamps early. At the time, there was no clear end in sight to the government shutdown. Officials devised a quick workaround.

DOTTIE ROSENBAUM: Which was really important...

ALLYN: Dottie Rosenbaum studies food stamps at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

ROSENBAUM: ...Because in the event that the shutdown had continued, it protected SNAP and ensured that individuals would receive SNAP benefits for the month of February which otherwise would not have been assured.

ALLYN: But here's the rub. Government reopened a week after the double payment, and now millions of people on food stamps have to wait until March until they get another round of benefits. It'll be five weeks until Davenport sees more food assistance. He's already used most of February's payments stocking his pantry until his card's reloaded in March.

DAVENPORT: Cereals, oatmeals, soups 'cause it's winter, like, canned spaghetti, canned ravioli, canned lasagna, stuff that I can freeze

TERESA MILLER: 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.

ALLYN: That Secretary Teresa Miller of Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services. She's urging Pennsylvania residents to give more this month to their local food banks since they're expecting a surge in demand. Miller says she's chipping in, too.

MILLER: I wrote a check that was a little bit higher than what I normally write because I'm concerned about people this month.

ALLYN: Miller says some families will experience a food crisis later this month, and that's partly due to widespread confusion about what the double payment was all about. She says the state did everything it could to inform SNAP recipients on time but acknowledges letters didn't go out until after the change. About 90 percent of those on SNAP nationwide will go more than 40 days between food payments according to Rosenbaum.

ROSENBAUM: So that will put a strain at the end of February and beginning of March for many households across the country.

ALLYN: At a food pantry north of Philadelphia, Christi Schatz is lining up for donated food. She uses a mix of SNAP and disability benefits to buy groceries, but she's depleted both. She was counting on getting a payment this month. She thought the double payment was a glitch.

CHRISTI SCHATZ: 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.

ALLYN: Miller with Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services has this message for politicians in Washington.

MILLER: 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.

ALLYN: Thinking about February 15 fills Miller with dread. That's when the federal government could shut down again. Federal officials have told states they can go ahead and release March benefits early. But in Pennsylvania, Miller worries that would only trigger the same problem all over again. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia.

KELLY: And this story comes from Keystone Crossroads, a statewide public media initiative reporting on cities across Pennsylvania. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.