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Government Shutdown Puts Federal Food Stamp Program In Jeopardy


The partial government shutdown has reached the one-month mark. And the federal food stamp program is now under pressure. More than 40 million Americans participate in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The Department of Agriculture says recipients are getting their full February benefits, but what happens beyond that is looking unclear. Michael J. Wilson is director of the nonprofit Maryland Hunger Solutions. He's been trying to help people affected by this navigate a way forward. And he came by our studios in Washington, D.C.

Give me an example of how this partial shutdown has affected someone who uses food stamps.

MICHAEL J. WILSON: So it's complicated in many ways. First of all, there are rumors and there are things that people don't know. And so they wonder if they're going to get their benefits. If they get their benefits early - in Maryland, benefits for February were dispersed on the 17 and the 18 of January. So some people actually got their February benefits before they got their January benefits.

GREENE: Oh, that's interesting.

WILSON: And the challenge is going to be for folks to be able to use their benefits throughout the end of January, through February and to plan accordingly. February is going to be a tough month for a lot of folks. And nobody knows what March is going to be.

GREENE: So if a shutdown is really going to cause problems as we look forward into coming weeks and month, what - where is that actually going to hit the hardest? Where does the system get kind of thrown into disarray?

WILSON: The money flows from the federal government to the state so that it's dispersed to recipients.

GREENE: I see, so the money would stop flowing. That's the problem.

WILSON: That's...

GREENE: The states are actually not getting the money to provide these benefits.

WILSON: That's exactly right. So what do you do if you're a state like Maryland? You have 650,000 people who are getting benefits. It's about $73 million a month. It's even bigger in places like California and New York. I mean, how do you address that issue when we've set up this program, people are getting benefits and all of a sudden, you turn off the spigot and there's no more money?

GREENE: Is this affecting federal employees? I mean, how many federal employees who might be out of work right now actually rely on food stamps?

WILSON: So there are both federal employees who are out of work who rely on food stamps and federal employees who are not out of work. We know that there are low-wage federal employees and federal contractors who actually utilize SNAP.

GREENE: Can I just make sure I understand this? It's almost like, for many people, a double whammy. I mean, they're out of work, not getting their paychecks and also can't get - potentially - their food stamps.

WILSON: That's correct. I know that the Congress has passed and the president has signed legislation saying that people are going to get their back pay. It's been my experience that people need to eat every day. And so waiting for whenever the shutdown ends or whenever it might end doesn't help them feed themselves and their families today.

GREENE: Is there any message you want to send to people in government who are working on ending this shutdown or not working on ending this shutdown on behalf of all the recipients of food stamps?

WILSON: So there's an old African proverb which says, when the elephants fight, the grass suffers. And so there are people who are experiencing poverty who don't really have a dog in this fight, who are wondering about whether they'll be able to feed their kids - if they're disabled, if they're seniors, if they're unemployed. And so it's really unconscionable. Never in the history of the program have people never gotten their benefits. No matter what shutdown happened, no matter what war happened, no matter what recession happened, people have always gotten their benefits. And this is the first time when they've really been threatened about whether or not they'll be able to have food.

GREENE: Michael J. Wilson is the director of Maryland Hunger Solutions. Thanks so much.

WILSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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