People who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits will receive their February benefits by Jan. 20 due to the federal government shutdown. It's not clear whether SNAP will be funded in March.
Washingtonians who count on food assistance will see their February benefits arrive early, offering a temporary reprieve from the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the federal government shutdown.
People who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits usually see those benefits show up on their Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT cards, between the first and 20th of the month. They can now expect February benefits to arrive by Jan. 20, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) announced this week.
The early payments are a result of a U.S. Department of Agriculture move to issue February funds to states early. The shutdown hasn’t yet interrupted SNAP payments because when the department’s funding expired in mid-December, SNAP benefits for January were already fully funded, according to the department. But the lasting shutdown threw future SNAP payments into question. It remains unclear what will happen come March.
Even if March benefits are funded, bumping up the disbursement date for February lengthens the amount of time between payments. State officials are urging recipients to budget accordingly.
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More than 900,000 children and adults receive food benefits in Washington state and three-quarters of them receive no other cash assistance, according to DSHS.
“Healthy food is foundational to our well-being and without it, we struggle to fully contribute to our communities,” said DSHS Community Services Division Director Babs Roberts in a statement.
Nearly all recipients will get their February benefits early, with the exception of those who currently have pending status, meaning they need to finish an application or review process for the government, according to DSHS. Those recipients will get SNAP benefits once their pending status is resolved.
Before the news that February payments would be funded, some SNAP recipients wondered how long they may go without help, said Christina Wong, director of public policy and advocacy for Northwest Harvest, which distributes food to 375 food banks and meal programs and serves about 5,000 people a week at the Cherry Street Food Bank.
Wong spent 20 minutes on the phone with one worried caller looking for a “straight answer,” she said. “All I could say was, ‘We just don’t know and I’m really sorry about that.’ ”
Some local food banks have also reported an uptick in clients, including federal employees, since the shutdown. In areas near the airport and Mount Rainier National Park, food banks are also seeing clients who work at nearby businesses that are taking a financial hit due to missing workers or visitors, said Northwest Harvest spokesman Jordan Rubin. “So 800,000 [the national estimate of workers going without pay during the shutdown] is just the tip of the iceberg.”
The White Center Food Bank, which typically sees around 10 new families a month, is now seeing 10 to 20 new families a day, said executive director Marelle Habenicht. Some are SNAP recipients worried about losing their benefits; others are federal employees struggling to make ends meet without a paycheck.
“There is a lot of fear and frustration,” Habenicht said.
The food bank is most in need of money, which they can use to efficiently restock the food pantry because they’re able to buy food in bulk or at a discount, Habenicht said.
About 11,000 federal workers are furloughed or working without pay in Washington, according to the office of Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, citing figures from the Center for American Progress.
More than 55,000 U.S. Coast Guard members did not receive their last paycheck, according to the office of Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, citing Coast Guard figures. About 2,500 of those members are stationed in Washington, and 130 civilian Coast Guard employees in Washington have been furloughed, Cantwell’s office said.
A nonprofit association of Coast Guard employees established a food pantry at the base on Seattle’s waterfront after the shutdown.
“We take care of our own. We’re a family,” said Chief Petty Officer David Mosley. “So when we saw there was the potential of missing paychecks it was not uncommon for our people to start saying, ‘what do we need to do to take care of our own and make sure they get what they need?’
If the shutdown stretches on and SNAP benefits go unfunded in March, food banks will likely see ripple effects. Typically, food programs see an uptick during the final week of the month as people run out of SNAP benefits, said Rubin, from Northwest Harvest. A month without benefits could stretch that high-traffic week into five weeks.
“That’s a huge burden on the food system,” Rubin said. “I’m not sure exactly how food banks here and around the country are going to deal with that without an incredible outpouring from the community of resources.”