WASHINGTON ― The Trump administration has come up with a complicated plan to ensure people who receive food assistance will still get benefits for February even if the government remains shut down.
After that, all bets are off.
The nation’s 38 million Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program enrollees will get their February benefits early ― no later than Jan. 20, according to the plan announced Tuesday by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
“We want to ensure states and SNAP recipients that the benefits for February will be provided,” Perdue told reporters.
Perdue said that the last government funding bill Congress passed, which expired on Dec. 21, gave him 30 days to issue the following month’s benefits, which will amount to nearly $5 billion overall. Perdue didn’t make any promises about what would happen in March.
President Donald Trump initiated the partial government shutdown last month in an effort to make Congress pay for a border wall that he previously said Mexico would fund. Congress has shown no willingness to play along, and Trump has said the shutdown could go on for “months or even years.”
“For now we have solved the problem of what to do about February SNAP benefits,” Perdue said Tuesday. “I believe this is ample time for Congress to act.”
Perdue said the U.S. Department of Agriculture would still have a $3 billion contingency fund that it might be able to use for benefits in March, but he didn’t offer any details about the agency’s plans for that month.
Food assistance, commonly known as food stamps, is one of the federal government’s most responsive antipoverty programs. Suspending benefits, which is what would apparently happen if the shutdown continues past March, would have serious economic consequences ― and create a lot more hunger.
Word that the federal shutdown could suspend SNAP benefits has spread through state and local media since last week. Just on Tuesday, local reporters in Hawaii, New Jersey, South Carolina, Utah and several other states filed stories on the shutdown possibly bringing hunger to town.
Perdue’s plan will be no small administrative feat. The USDA is telling state agencies to suspend their normal operations this week so they can instead prepare to issue February’s benefits early. States are responsible for taking federal SNAP funds and loading them onto debit cards for program enrollees to spend on food at grocery stores. The average benefits come to about $123 per month per person.
It’s good that the government has guaranteed SNAP benefits through February, said Stacy Dean, a nutrition policy expert with the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “But,” she said, “if the shutdown continues we face the same dilemma in March.”
Some experts have said there’s no reason for USDA to suspend food benefits just because Congress hasn’t appropriated funds, arguing that the government ought to treat SNAP as an “entitlement” like Social Security or Medicare. Those programs continue on autopilot even in a government shutdown.
Perdue and his spokespeople have not responded to questions about paying SNAP benefits without an appropriation.
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