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How Will Budget Battles Affect Hunger?

October 2013

Coverage of the government shutdown is dominating the news right now, but, as budget fights go, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. With the federal government closed for business and the country on the edge of yet another fiscal cliff, here is what anti-hunger advocates need to know about current, and upcoming, budget fights on Capitol Hill.

What the Shutdown Means for Programs that Address Hunger and Poverty

A government shutdown means there are no additional federal funds to support programs such as WIC, SNAP (formerly food stamps), Head Start, low-income housing assistance, and international poverty-focused development assistance. For the first few days, a shutdown doesn’t have disastrous consequences for most anti-hunger programs. However, the longer the shutdown continues, the more harm is done to vulnerable populations, both in the United States and abroad.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is the program most immediately affected by the shutdown. Continued services, food benefits, and program administration depends on how individual states react and how long the shutdown lasts. Most WIC centers appear able to continue to operate through the end of October, but as the shutdown continues, the consequences become more dramatic. Some families with young children are also facing potential Head Start closures —a small number of Head Start centers are already feeling the impact of the government shutdown, primarily those with grants that expired on Oct. 1. The Wall Street Journal reported that 3,200 children in Florida, Connecticut, Alabama, and Mississippi have already been left without Head Start and additional programs are expected to close as well.

SNAP households will continue to receive benefits through October. There is some contingency funding available to support the program, but it is unclear what will happen if the shutdown lasts more than a month.

For the time being, some programs within the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will continue to operate using residual funds. However, uncertainly about funding will eventually hinder diplomacy and development and deplete U.S. flexibility to respond to national security imperatives. More broadly, the shutdown will drag down an already-weak economy. Furloughed workers, halted contracts, cut services—the economic consequences are severe. More than 800,000 federal employees are on unpaid leave.  The lost wages are estimated to cost the economy $1 billion per week. 

Why Congress Can’t Come to an Agreement

A few things stand out about the current situation. Chiefly, Congress is at a stalemate over a spending bill, even though spending levels aren’t at issue. A small group of very conservative House Republicans are demanding a rollback of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) be attached to any short-term spending bill to fund the government, while the White House and Senate have said that they will not agree to include the ACA in negotiations around any short-term spending bill. 

Even if members of Congress were to agree on a short-term spending bill, it merely buys them time to hash out a larger spending bill, which would fund the government through September 2014, address sequestration, and possibly include further deficit reduction.

Congress must also raise the debt ceiling to prevent the country from defaulting on its obligations. The shutdown fight could get wrapped up in a larger budget deal involving the debt ceiling, and that’s where the seriousness of the situation grows exponentially.

The Seriousness of the Debt Ceiling Showdown

The United States is expected to hit its credit limit, the debt ceiling, on Oct. 17. If Congress doesn’t act to raise the debt ceiling, our country won’t be able to pay its bills and will default. If this happens, the consequences would be catastrophic for this country’s weakened economy. The U.S. Treasury Department recently issued a report stating that a debt crisis in mid-October could send the nation into a recession comparable to 2008.

We’re likely to see proposals that call for cutting programs such as SNAP and Medicaid in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. This is deeply troubling. A bad deal means backpedalling on years of work that has been done to reduce hunger and poverty in the United States and around the world. A bad deal means many, many more people will wake up not knowing where their next meal will come from.

Our country cannot afford to see political games played around the debt ceiling. The creditworthiness of the United States is not a bargaining chip.

So what should you do? First, email Congress today. Calls may not go through during the shutdown, but you can still send emails. Second, help influence the public debate around these issues by writing a letter to the editor of your local paper.

Congress has to resolve these issues. This government shutdown is untenable, sequestration remains unsustainable, and a bad deal that further hurts the poor is unconscionable.

Photo illustration by Joseph Molieri.

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