Even if the partial government shutdown ends today, which it won’t, families receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) will have to go almost two months without assistance from the program.
This is because the Department of Agriculture, in an effort to cover SNAP as long as possible, instructed states to pay out February’s assistance in late January. This creates a period of at least 40 days between February’s payment and March’s. Some families would see gaps of as long as 50 days, and a small percentage could go longer than 60 days without funding.
This is because states typically stagger payment of SNAP across the whole of a month, but direction from the Department of Agriculture pressed states to pay out February all at once. Meaning low-income families typically scheduled to receive benefits near the end of a month could easily see extremely long gaps in funding.
And that period will be hard. Although families have received their February payment, receiving it early does have consequences. SNAP funds rarely last an entire month, and usually a full half of the allotted support is spent in the first week. In 99 percent of America, SNAP does not cover three meals a day. But for an alarming number of recipients, SNAP is their only means of income.
SNAP law, specifically the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008, does require that families not go more than 40 days without benefits, but also doesn’t envision a shutdown of the Department of Agriculture that has lasted over a month. As such, it’s unclear if the requirement will be enforced, and if it is enforced it’s unclear how states could possibly keep to that requirement.
Due to the federal government shutdown, February benefits for SNAP recipients will be dispersed early on Jan. 18, 2019, and will be available within 24-hours. This is the only payment recipients will receive for the month of February. https://t.co/kX6sAr9x5C pic.twitter.com/7SZhN2Nvsa
— PA Department of Human Services (@PAHumanServices) January 14, 2019
States have been cautioning SNAP recipients to carefully ration what they’ve got. Not only because of a long, hard February no matter what happens, but also the potential of missing March’s assistance altogether.
“Unless the federal shutdown is resolved, benefits for March MAY NOT be available,” one California official wrote. “We are waiting for federal guidance and will keep you informed.”
Pennsylvania tweeted a warning, Montana is calling recipients. Nebraska is seeing heavy call volume on the state’s customer service line. Missouri has launched a “statewide effort” to warn SNAP recipients.
“People are probably worried about it; we just don’t have any information at this point about the March benefits,” said Niki Forbing-Orr, public information manager for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
And still, even if the shutdown ended right now, millions of Americans will face a daunting challenge putting food on the table.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.