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Food stamps covered through February, but no promises for March if shutdown goes on

The impasse over a border wall threatened basic food assistance for 38 million low-income Americans.
Image: Bloomberg Asks Fed Gov't For Permission To Ban Food Stamp Purchases Of Sugary Drinks
A sign in a market window advertises the acceptance of food stamps in New York on October 7, 2010.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

The 38 million Americans on food stamps will be getting their February benefits a bit early because of the government shutdown, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday.

Due to concerns that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP or food stamps, could run out of money in the latter half of February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will urge states to pay out the benefit by Jan. 20 at the latest, after they receive billions of dollars from the federal government for the program, the secretary said.

“This is very similar to what we have done in disaster situations such as hurricanes,” Perdue told reporters.

This fulfills the USDA’s obligation to pay out the benefit for February, Perdue said, which should be “ample time for Congress to act.”

“So I call on the House and the Senate to agree on appropriations legislation and send it to President Trump in a form that he's able to sign,” the secretary said.

The Jan. 20 date is key because the most recent continuing resolution that Congress passed, and which expired in late December, leading to the shutdown, allows the federal government to meet required payments within 30 days of its expiration.

While officials committed to SNAP being paid through February, they could not do the same for March or beyond.

The announcement comes after many raised concerns whether the Trump administration would continue to fund a program that feeds 38 million people as the White House continues a budget fight with Congress over the funding for a border wall.

Officials said that because of the ability to pursue “early issuance” they would not have to dip in to a $3 billion contingency fund for SNAP that many assumed they would have to use for February.

That would not have been enough money, as food stamps cost approximately $4.8 billion per month, according to the USDA’s own numbers. That would have made for a $1.8 billion shortfall.

Perdue and Brandon Lipps, an acting deputy undersecretary who oversees the program, said they were looking at various ways to pay for March.

“You've heard me say our motto at USDA is ‘do right and feed everyone,’” the secretary told reporters. “With this solution I think we've got the ‘feed everyone’ part handled, and I believe the plan we constructed takes care of the ‘do right’ part.”