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While Shutdown Sidelines 800,000 Federal Workers, Many Locals Have Yet To Feel Its Effects

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Joined by union leaders in Pittsburgh Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale warned that a prolonged federal shutdown could cause widespread economic harm.

How big an impact the partial federal shutdown is having depends on where you look. Nearly two weeks after the shutdown began, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale highlighted the costs to the more than 800,000 federal employees that are either furloughed or working without pay.

“I am particularly concerned for those workers who have no financial reserves,” said DePasquale, who said employees could miss rent and mortgage payments depending on how long the spending impasse continues.

It’s unclear how long the shutdown, which affects nine agencies, will last. President Donald Trump and his allies in Congress remain deadlocked with Democrats over funding for a wall along the southern U.S. border.

Joined by local union leaders at a Pittsburgh news conference, DePasquale warned, “A federal shutdown can cause ripples across our entire economy.” 

If the shutdown continues, he said, it will hurt consumer confidence and job creation. It also could impact the state’s collection of income taxes, he added.

“Even if you aren’t a federal employee, even if you don’t know a federal employee, even if you don’t care about federal employees,” DePasquale said, “this will still impact you.” He noted, however, that “it may take time for those impacts to be felt.”

In Pennsylvania, an estimated 12,000 workers will be furloughed or forced to work without pay, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal public policy research organization. 

Allegheny County agencies, which administer federal funds disbursed by the state, have yet to feel the effects, according to Allegheny County spokeswoman Amie Downs.

“At this time, the federal shutdown is not having any impact on the county’s operations," she said in an email Wednesday.

Nevertheless, the impasse has caused concern among some recipients of federal benefits, according to Ann Sanders, Public Policy Advocate at the anti-hunger organization Just Harvest. The Pittsburgh-based nonprofit helps clients to apply for federal assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman, Infants, and Children (WIC).

“Mostly what we’ve seen is confusion among recipients of benefits – people asking if they’re still going to be able to receive their SNAP, their food stamp benefits, or their WIC benefits,” Sanders said. “And the answer to that is, yes, they still can.”

So far, Sanders estimated her organization has received “just a handful” of phone calls from worried clients. She noted, however, if the shutdown lasts longer than “several months,” it could become a problem for women who receive WIC.

The program, which provides food and health-care assistance to children, mothers, and mothers-to-be, is funded on a yearly basis through the Department of Agriculture, one of the shuttered agencies. In contrast, under the recently passed federal Farm Bill, the food stamp program is set up to exist for the next 10 years.

An analysis published Friday, however, suggests the program could run out of money as soon as February. According to the Washington Post, Congress must appropriate SNAP funds annually.

Sanders said the main problem with the shutdown is the uncertainty it creates for organizations like hers.

“That’s sort of the worst part of a government shutdown,” she said. “Instead of focusing all of your energy on doing the things that you need to do, you then have to divert your energy into making contingency plans.”

*This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019, to indicate the shutdown could potentially affect food stamp availability. The original version of this story did not note this possibility.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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