Amid media stories about closed memorials, there’s been comparatively little attention to the government shutdown’s impact on the poor – including federal dollars denied to Head Start and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). But advocates warn of a severe shutdown toll.
“The lives of low-income and working families don’t stop because those guys take time off, you know, in a pissing contest basically,” said Diana Spatz, who founded and directs the Oakland nonprofit Low-Income Families’ Empowerment through Education (LIFETIME). Spatz warned of “a large risk of putting more families into homelessness, because they’re already on such thin margins.” For however long the shutdown lasts, Spatz told Salon, “millions of children and their families are at risk.”
“More people are calling us for help …” said Spatz, whose group offers services and benefits counseling for low-income families. “Where can they get emergency batches of food?” Further, she told Salon, “If Head Start shuts down, you can’t go to work, you can’t go to school, you’re at risk then of being sanctioned for not doing your welfare-to-work hours.”
With WIC, said Spatz, “you get to buy a bunch of milk. For folks not to have that, it’s going to make it impossible for them to feed their kids.” When kids face “disruption in their basic needs,” she told Salon, “you always see more kids getting ill, you see more people in the hospital, you see more children missing schools because they can’t pay attention in school because they’re hungry. You know, we just had a kid crying in our office, talking about how, ‘we run out of food stamps by the third week in every month.’” Spatz noted that back when she herself was pregnant, “I relied totally on those food supplements that I got through WIC.”
The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that four Head Start programs – covering about 3,200 kids in Alabama, Connecticut, Florida and Mississippi -- have so far closed due to the shutdown and another 11 would by Friday without restoration of federal funds. A Tuesday memo from the U.S. Department of Agriculture directed states that they could draw on other funds to make up for missing federal WIC dollars, but said it “anticipates WIC State agencies may still face funding shortfalls associated with FY 2014 obligations during the shutdown.” In a statement that day, the Children’s Defense Fund and five other organizations warned that “millions of our neediest children may not receive” WIC benefits “they desperately need.”
Asked Tuesday about the shutdown’s impact on WIC, Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., told Salon, “Obviously there are literally thousands of federal programs and thousands of federal issues like this, and I can’t tell you I’m familiar with the specific impacts of this on all of them.” The congressman framed the shutdown as an effort to force Democrats to compromise, and to protect constituents from the Affordable Care Act. “This isn’t just about what effect the government shutdown is having,” said Campbell, “it’s also about what effect Obamacare is having.”
Spatz said that Obamacare had made it possible for her to receive better mental health services for post-traumatic stress disorder, and for her daughter who has a preexisting condition to stay on Spatz’s health insurance plan.
Spatz called the behavior of congressional Republicans “appalling,” and said it illustrated a “cold-hearted political process” that was also in play in the bipartisan welfare reform law signed by President Clinton in 1996: Politicians conclude “poor people and children don’t vote,” and thus, “the only time they matter is when they can be used as a political football to prove a point.
“A lot of people are just in kind of panic mode,” Spatz told Salon, “not knowing what they’re going to do – to get to work and feed their kids.” She noted she “used to be someone who relied on these programs, and I’m glad I’m not now … If you are on the economic margins of this country, this kind of behavior by Congress could send your families over the precipice.”