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Shutdown Fight Raises Questions About Fate Of Food Stamps After January

Gene J. Puskar
In this March 1, 2018 photo, a customer leaves Dylamatos Market owned by Dianne Shenk in the Hazelwood neighborhood of Pittsburgh. About a quarter of Shenk's customers pay with benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

It remains unclear how long low-income Pennsylvanians will continue to receive food stamps if the federal government's partial shutdown extends into February.

An estimated 1.8 million low-income Pennsylvanians currently receive the benefits. But while the state’s Department of Human Services said Monday that “funding is available through the end of January,” its statement did not indicate whether the money would stretch into the following month.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the food stamp program to help people pay for groceries, has yet to provide additional guidance to states.

The agency is one of nine affected by the spending dispute. President Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress remain at odds with Democrats over funding for a wall along the southern U.S. border.

In the face of such uncertainty, local food pantries, soup kitchens and other food providers are bracing for a potential surge in demand, said Lisa Scales, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

“We are shoring up our food supply, and reaching out to food donors and vendors to ensure that we will have adequate supply if the need suddenly increases,” Scales said.

Scales said southwestern Pennsylvania receives over $37 million from the federal food stamp program, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“This equates to more than 12 million meals per month,” added Scales, who estimated that her organization provides an average of 3 million meals per month. According to the food bank’s website, it partners with nearly 400 food-assistance programs to distribute food throughout an 11-county service area.

Scales described food stamps as “certainly the number-one line of defense to hunger. … So, the effects would be significant on our network if [SNAP] benefits were no longer available starting in February.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf addressed the federal spending feud when speaking Monday with reporters in Pittsburgh. He said the shutdown has yet to impact the operations of state government, but that state workers could be furloughed if the federal government remained dark. 

“I’d say within the next two weeks we’ll start to really see some consequences if [federal officials] don’t figure this out,” Wolf said.

In the absence of guidance from Washington, Wolf said he had not developed a contingency plan to manage a protracted shutdown.

“This is not my job,” he said. “This is somebody else who’s not doing a job, and it’s going to have consequences if it continues.”

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.