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Food aid in jeopardy as shutdown drags on

Federal food aid for low-income kids and the elderly could dry up if the government shutdown drags into the next month.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Federal food aid for low-income kids and the elderly could dry up if the government shutdown drags into the next month.

A client of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger food bank takes items from the shelf on July 24, 2013 in New York City. The food bank assists thousands of qualifying New York residents in providing a monthly allotment of food. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Federal food aid for low-income Americans could dwindle if the government shutdown drags into the next month–leaving the states in charge of deciding to cut off benefits altogether or to dig into local coffers to feed the needy.

The USDA has said it will fund the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)–which helps feed about 45 million Americans a year, most of whom are children or elderly–through the end of October.

“This is the means by one in seven people in this country put food on the table,” said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. The USDA’s shutdown plan says it has about $2 billion in “contingency funding” that could be used to help states, but based on numbers from the Congressional Budget office, the SNAP program costs about $6.1 billion a month.

The program was already set to face substantial cuts in November as increased funding from the 2009 stimulus bill ran out. But that cut wasn’t nearly deep enough for House Republicans, who voted to cut $39 billion from the program in September, while still maintaining lavish farm subsidies.

State cuts could go even deeper.

If the shutdown lasts into November, Americans reliant on SNAP could find themselves without aid, depending on the fiscal health of the state or the priorities of state leadership. A spokesperson for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration told MSNBC that “If the shutdown continues beyond October, the State of Indiana will assess its resources and consider its options for continuing to provide SNAP benefits.” Similarly, a spokesperson for Mississippi’s Department of Human Services said they would look to the USDA for guidance.

Some states are already cutting back on assistance for the poor. Arizona has stopped paying Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits entirely for the duration of the shutdown. Children are being turned away from Head Start programs closed because of the shutdown. The USDA has said it can fund the Women, Infants and Children food aid program through October, but as with SNAP states could be on their own if the shutdown drags into November.

Still, Dean said, there’s a question about whether legally, the federal government has the authority to keep paying these benefits regardless of whether the government is shut down, much as it does with Social Security and Medicaid.

A Mississippi spokesperson forwarded a statement from the USDA suggesting it the federal agency had not yet decided: “We understand that states may be concerned about future operations and whether November benefits will be paid. If we were to face that situation, the USDA would evaluate available options, seek legal determinations, and make a final decision about a course of action closer to that time.”