With gridlock persisting in Washington, a government shutdown is looking all but inevitable ahead of this weekend’s deadline.
While the Senate pushes forward with bipartisan approach aimed at keeping the government open, the Republican-controlled House has made little progress — most recently with Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s last-ditch plan collapsing Friday. If spending measures aren’t passed by Saturday night, millions of federal employees will be furloughed and many others will be forced to work without pay until the shutdown ends.
A handful of federal safety services that people rely on everyday are also in jeopardy. From dwindling funds for critical food assistance programs to potential delays in customer service for recipients of low-staffed Medicare and Social Security offices. The ripple effects would come down to how long the shutdown lasts and varying contingency plans in place at impacted agencies.
“Collectively, hundreds of millions of Americans, a majority of the population, are receiving some kind of benefits from the government,” said Forrest V. Morgeson III, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business. He noted a shutdown would bring significant financial uncertainty and economic implications down the road.
Here’s what you need to know.
Will SNAP be affected by a government shutdown? What about WIC?
A government shutdown could risk millions of low-income Americans’ access to food and nutrition assistance programs — with impacts depending on how long the shutdown lasts and program-by-program contingency funds.
Nearly 7 million women and children who rely on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) could be at risk of losing assistance almost immediately into a shutdown, according to the Biden Administration. That’s because the federal contingency fund supporting normal WIC operations will likely run out in a matter of days — pushing states to rely on their own money or carryover funds.
Impacted families are “going to be going to food pantries,” said Dr. Nancy Nielsen, senior associate dean for health policy at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “These are people who need the help. These are moms. These are infants. So this is a real problem.”
Families who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could also lose assistance if a shutdown drags out for a more significant period of time. According to the Agriculture Department, regardless of what happens in Washington this weekend, households will receive SNAP assistance as usual through October.
What about Head Start programs and free school lunch?
Head Start programs serving more than 10,000 disadvantaged children would immediately lose federal funding, although they might be able to stave off immediate closure if the shutdown doesn’t last long.
Those 10 programs, which are located in Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts and South Carolina, serve just a fraction of the 820,000 children enrolled in the program at any given time.
Tommy Sheridan, the deputy director for the National Head Start Association, said the programs are in trouble because their grants start on Oct. 1. Programs with grants that don’t start on that date will continue getting money. But if the shutdown drags on, the number of affected programs will grow as more grants come up for renewal.
Beyond Head Start, concerns have also arisen around free school meals. But the Agriculture Department says it does not anticipate any immediate issues with federal child nutrition programs, including school meals because support for these programs is provided in part by a permanent and mandatory funding authority.
In the event of a government shutdown, state and federal operations for child nutrition are set to continue through October and potentially a few months beyond that, according to the department. But the department would not be able to support these programs for the full year without appropriations.
Will I continue to receive Social Security checks?
Regardless of what happens in Washington this weekend, Social Security and Supplemental Security Income recipients will continue to receive payments. But response times for people with issues could be delayed due to furloughs.
“If you have a question about Social Security, you may not be able to find anybody to answer your questions,” Nielsen said. “But the everyday transactions of sending checks out will still continue.”
According to a recent contingency plan from the Social Security Administration, the agency will cease non-critical actions and those “not directly related to the accurate and timely payment of benefits.” The issuance of new social security cards and replacements will continue.
Would a shutdown impact Medicare and other health services?
Medicare and Medicaid benefits will also continue — as both are mandatory programs funded separately from annual appropriations. That means that patients should still be able to see their doctors and have medical bills paid.
But, similar to Social Security, there could be delays and disruptions to customer service due to furloughs. According to contingency details published by the Health and Human Services Department last week, about half of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is set to be furloughed in the event of a lapse of appropriations.
Beyond Medicare and Medicaid, health care services for veterans are set to continue in the event of a shutdown. The majority of programs funded by the Indian Health Service would also remain in operation and IHS has received advanced appropriations for the 2024 fiscal year, per a recent contingency plan.
How could flights and other travel be impacted?
The nation’s air-travel system is expected to operate relatively normally during a shutdown. Air traffic controllers and TSA screeners are deemed essential workers — however, those people won’t be paid until the shutdown ends, and TSA lines could grow longer if enough screeners stay home.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday that air travel will remain safe in a shutdown, but that the training of new air traffic controllers will stop and 1,000 trainees will be furloughed.
Long before this week’s deadline, airlines were already been complaining that a shortage of air traffic controllers has been causing flight delays and cancellations. The Federal Aviation Administration said in August it hired 1,500 new controllers in the past year and asked Congress for money to hire another 1,800 in the new fiscal year.
The processing of passports and visas will continue in a shutdown “as the situation permits,” according to guidance that the State Department gave employees last week. The department said consulates in the U.S. and abroad will say open “as long as there are sufficient fees to support operations,” but passport work could stop if the building where the work is done gets shuttered.
The time it takes to get a passport or visa already is much longer than before the pandemic. Most Customs and Border Protection agents are also considered essential and would be expected to work at airports and border crossings.
Could there be student loan disruptions?
If spending measures aren’t passed by Saturday’s deadline, the government shutdown would start the same day that student loans emerge from the pandemic pause after beginning to accrue interest again on Sept. 1.
But, shutdown or not, borrowers’ payments will still be due. For the most part, loan servicers will be able to continue to process payments regularly — but there could be delays for those who need to consult with or seek help from the Education Department due to the potential of agency furloughs.
Students applying for federal aid during a shutdown can expect similar delays because of this. Officials have pointed to potential disruptions to processing FAFSA applications, disbursing Pell Grants and pursuing public loan forgiveness, for example.
Would mail services slow down?
The United States Postal Service will not be affected by a government shutdown. The Postal Service doesn’t rely on taxpayer dollars because it generally gets its funding through the sales of products and services.
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