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If Shutdown Persists, Can States Fund Food Stamps and Welfare on Their Own?

States are scrambling to figure out how to fund the $4-billion-a-month food stamps program -- and whether to keep cash welfare going. Some say it's "probably not possible."

A woman enters a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services office.
A woman enters a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services office.
(AP/Ed White)

SPEED READ:

  • Funding will run out at the end of February for food stamps and at the end of January for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, if the shutdown has not ended.
  • States must pick up the tab for food stamps, but because TANF was not reauthorized in December, they can cut those benefits.
  • The food stamps program cost the federal government $4 billion a month.
 
As the longest shutdown in U.S. history drags into its fourth week, and the standoff between Congress and the White House shows no signs of thawing, states are starting to scramble to figure out how to fund their safety-net programs, which are in higher demand because close to a million federal workers aren't receiving paychecks.

The federal government has allocated money for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, through the end of February. Before that, at the end of this month, states will run out of money for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, also known as cash welfare.

The two programs function differently, which may decide how -- or whether -- states step in to fill the holes.

SNAP -- which serves around 14 percent of the U.S. population -- is fully funded by the federal government and doles out $4 billion a month to states. If the government is still shut down in February, states will have to pick up the tab.

“The idea that a state could cover that gap with state funding is a really daunting idea and probably not possible,” says Ann Flagg, director of the Center for Child and Family Well-Being at the American Public Human Services Association. “There aren’t existing line-items in state budgets that can be shifted. And even if a state would try, there’s no guarantee they’d be reimbursed from the feds.” (Nearly four years after the 2013 shutdown, Arizona, Colorado, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah were still waiting to get reimbursed by the federal government.)

Flagg says states are "deep in contingency planning mode." Many, she says, are looking to public-private partnerships or community organizations to potentially help fill the gaps. 

 

What Happens If TANF Runs Out During the Shutdown?

Unlike SNAP, states have a bit more wiggle room with TANF, which covers 3.4 million people, for several reasons. It’s jointly funded by states and the federal government; states are allowed to use leftover money from the last fiscal year to fund it; and states can also take money from other TANF-funded services -- including child care -- to supplement the loss. 

A spokesperson for Oregon's Department of Administrative Services told KATU that the state has some leftover funds from last year to help plug TANF holes in February, but it may be “challenging.”

The program expired at the end of December when the government shut down, so even when it reopens, Congress will have to reauthorize TANF funding before any is available. Furthermore, states are not required to continue TANF during a lapse in authorization, according to James Nash, spokesperson for the National Governors Association.

As of now, no state has announced that it will cut TANF until Congress reauthorizes it, but it would not be unprecedented: Arizona briefly cut TANF benefits during the 2013 shutdown. 

On Monday, the House unanimously passed a bill to reauthorize TANF, but it still needs to be taken up by the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked voting in the Senate until Democrats budge on President Trump's border wall.

Since SNAP is such a large program in size and scope, “it’s causing the greatest amount of concern," says Flagg. "There are just fewer options to fill in the gaps." But, she stresses that SNAP and TANF touch so many other safety-net programs that Americans rely on -- from food pantries to shelters for victims of domestic violence. “All of these things are interconnected, and it’s hurting families."

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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