Antoinette Martinez was relieved when she heard she would receive her food stamps for February about two weeks early. Her cabinet was nearly empty after the holidays, and now she could stock up on groceries to feed her family.
But Martinez also feared she wouldn’t be able to make the funds last. “I know I’m gonna spend them and I’m gonna be struggling next month,” 31-year-old Martinez said late Wednesday as she loaded her car with bags from a Food 4 Less market in Los Angeles.
The pain from the federal government’s partial shutdown is spreading in sometimes unexpected ways to millions of people who don’t work for the federal government.
The roughly 40 million people who depend on federal food assistance will get their February benefits early, because the government shutdown means the money will be unavailable later, state and federal officials said. All 50 states and the District of Columbia issued the benefits this week, or plan to do so by Sunday, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Normally, they would be distributed on or after Feb. 1.
It is unclear whether funding for the program will be available in March if the shutdown continues. The benefits for February cost the federal government approximately $4.8 billion.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, is administered through states and counties. In California, which operates the nation’s largest program, about 3.8 million people receive benefits. Nationwide, the average participant receives $125 per month.
The shutdown, caused by a disagreement between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration over the president’s demand for a wall at the Mexican border, is in its 28th day — the longest federal government shutdown in history.
The USDA informed states last week that if they wanted the nutrition dollars for February, they had to issue the benefits to participants by Jan. 20. The government told the states to make sure beneficiaries knew these were early, not extra, benefits — and that they would have to make them last.
A USDA spokesperson said Thursday in an emailed statement that food stamp recipients should “plan their purchases carefully to meet their food needs through the month of February.”
However, benefit administrators and advocates worry that there’s not enough time to get that message out widely. And even in normal times, food assistance often doesn’t carry families through an entire month, which could make it difficult for many families to stretch the money until March.
“I don’t think it will be a surprise that people will exhaust those benefits before the end of February, because they need them to eat,” said Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California, which represents human service directors in all 58 counties.
Despite these concerns, Senderling-McDonald and social service administrators throughout the nation have said they are pleased that the federal government released the funds early so recipients would not have to go without food assistance next month.
USDA officials told states they should continue accepting new applications and recertifying eligibility on existing cases because there is a contingency fund, though limited, to provide February benefits to that population.
States, counties and community organizations are getting out the message about the change — and the need to make the benefits last six weeks — through text messages, social media, posters, websites and call centers.
The message hadn’t made it to Howard Naylor, a retired veteran who lives in Los Angeles. He said the February funds appeared on his card Wednesday but he didn’t know why. Upon hearing the reason, Naylor said he would try to hold back some of the money so he didn’t run out before March. “You got to make do with what you got,” he said.
Naylor, 56, said he didn’t understand why the debate in Washington over funding for a border wall was affecting him. “It’s unfair,” said Naylor, who receives about $190 in food assistance each month. “What did I do?”
For low-income families, budgeting and planning are sometimes easier said than done, said Jeremy Everett, executive director of Baylor University’s Texas Hunger Initiative, which provides research and resources to organizations addressing food insecurity.
“Most families are running out of money by the end of the month even under normal circumstances,” Everett said. “I’m worried that by February, families are going to be really hurting.”
In California, state Department of Social Services officials worked closely with counties to get the benefits issued by Wednesday.
Mike Edmundson, a deputy division director of the social services agency in Orange County, said his county had issued February benefits to 85,000 participants. The other 20,000 are awaiting recertification.
It’s now clear that the shutdown is impacting some of the “most vulnerable members of our community,” Edmundson said. “They need these benefits to make sure there is food on the table.”
The USDA has said it is closely monitoring the situation and looking at all options for the next round of benefits, due for distribution in March.
That’s not comforting to Baylor University’s Everett. “My worry for March is that the government won’t be reopened … and it will be pretty dire,” he said.
Dawn Torres, 48, who was buying milk, bread and eggs on Wednesday at Food 4 Less, has the same fear. She depends on the roughly $200 she receives each month and says she already stretches those funds. “It does not go far,” she said. Torres said she hoped the shutdown would end before March. “We depend on the money we get,” she said.
Families running out of food assistance money could increase pressure on food banks, said Korey Patty, executive director of Feeding Louisiana, the state association of food banks. They are already expecting an increase in visitors next month and are worried about meeting the demand.
“The need doesn’t go away,” Patty said. “It just gets pushed to us.”
KHN's coverage in California is supported in part by Blue Shield of California Foundation.