Human needs concerns mount as the Trump Shutdown continues


January 9, 2019

Today is Day 19. Concern is mounting among human needs advocates about the effect a prolonged shutdown would have on key programs such as nutrition assistance and public housing.

Already the Trump Government Shutdown is the second-longest in modern history. If it continues until Saturday, Jan. 12, it will be the longest – and President Trump has threatened it could last “months or even years.”

Before we delve into the very real, but sometimes confusing, threat the shutdown poses to nutrition assistance and public housing, let us step back and take a macro look at some of the government operations that are affected. Per Axios:

Federal immigration courts, which will have to pick and choose which cases to handle, pushing some years down the road. [NYT]

The Interior Department, which can’t pay out treaty rights obligations to Native American tribes.

The IRS, which won’t pay out refunds or answer questions on taxes, even as tax season begins. [CNN] [Update: The IRS has said it will issue tax returns even if the shutdown continues, a change from first reports, leaving some uncertainty. IRS workers processing the payments will not get paid while the shutdown continues, however.]

The Securities and Exchange Commission, which is shut down while startups like Uber and Lyft prepare IPOs. [WashPost]

Housing and Urban Development: “Public housing officials say they don’t know how long rental assistance payments will keep coming … a suspension could put millions of tenants at risk if the shutdown drags on into February.” [NBC]

In addition, The Hill newspaper flat out states that, “The USDA will run out of funds to provide Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, (SNAP, or food stamps), if the shutdown drags into February, something that would affect 38 million Americans.”

The timing on when funds for SNAP would expire appears to be more complicated.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities adds some nuance:

“If the partial government shutdown that began in late December continues into February, there may not be sufficient appropriations for food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to provide full benefits for that month. And if the shutdown continues into March, little or no benefits likely will be paid in that month. As a result, millions of low-income households — including millions of poor children, parents, elderly people, and people with disabilities — could have their basic food assistance cut back substantially in February and then virtually eliminated altogether starting in March if the shutdown continues.”

USDA has a $3 billion “contingency reserve,” which was made available through the fiscal year 2018 appropriations process. It would have to be used to pay for SNAP benefits in February, but CBPP notes that $4.8 billion is expected to be spent on SNAP during February – meaning the contingency fund could not completely cover the shortfall.

Update: The Trump Administration now says that SNAP payments will continue through February, but are not guaranteed for March should the shutdown continue.

SNAP is not the only nutrition assistance program that could be affected. Notes James D. Weill, President of the Food Research & Action Center:

“The true looming national emergency is America failing to meet the nutritional needs of 38 million SNAP beneficiaries, 22 million free and reduced-price school meal recipients, 7 million WIC recipients, and millions of other beneficiaries of USDA food programs when these federal programs start running out of money should the shutdown go on for the “months,” much less “years,” as the President has said he is willing to tolerate.”

Weill sees a painful and hurtful irony among those who could be affected by a prolonged shutdown:

“And it is not just current beneficiaries who will be harmed. Adding unnecessary insult to irrational injury, locked-out and furloughed federal employees will need, but will be unable, to obtain nutrition program assistance. The inability to access benefits will also afflict many others in the private sector and state and local public sector who will lose jobs or face reduced hours of work as the appalling consequences of the shutdown cascade.”  Some of those taking a hit in the private sector are the food markets and their workers in neighborhoods with lots of SNAP beneficiaries.

And what about public housing? Again, it’s complicated, as many different types of housing assistance exist, and different programs can be affected in different ways. Here is some advice issued by our friends at the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC)

Shutdown’s Impact on HUD

“HUD sent letters to 1,500 landlords on January 4 clarifying what activities will continue to take place during the first 30 business days of the shutdown and how to prevent the eviction of thousands of tenants who live in homes covered by the Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA) program or Section 202 (for the elderly) and Section 811 (for people with disabilities) programs.”

According to one of the letters, HUD will continue to make payments under Section 8 contracts and other low-income rental contracts on an as-needed basis, but only if HUD has available budget authority from prior year appropriations or recaptures. There have been problems unanticipated by the Trump Administration. A Washington Post article states that HUD spokesman Jereon Brown says “[HUD] budget and contract staff are ‘scouring for money’ to figure out how to fund certain contracts on an interim basis.

NLIHC continues:

“HUD staff have indicated to NLIHC that while resources for project-based assistance are sufficient for January, funding becomes more uncertain if the shutdown lasts beyond this month. If that were to occur, HUD would likely enter short-term contracts or short-fund project owners. Short-term renewals and short funding is disruptive to administrative staff work and destabilizing for private owners and investors in PBRA properties.

“NLIHC has also learned that HUD can provide sufficient funding to [Public Housing Agencies (PHAs)] to maintain all vouchers in use through January and February, and similarly to fund public housing operations through that time. PHAs will, however, be delayed in receiving funding related to the public housing capital fund to help address pressing capital needs, putting low-income tenants at risk. Additionally, PHAs — particularly smaller PHAs with fewer funding reserves available to them – may not have adequate funding to maintain their own operations.”

In conclusion: many Americans following the shutdown through media reports might be forgiven if they conclude that its primary effects are garbage-infested national parks and lengthening security lines at airports across the country. But increasingly, just as federal workers and contractors are threatened, so too are key programs that affect human needs in our country.

Stay tuned this week as Voices for Human Needs will continue to explore the harmful impact of the Trump Government Shutdown. And be sure and check out our Trump Shutdown resource page.

Budget and Appropriations