The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘I’m just wondering if I’m going to have enough’: Shutdown creates lasting fallout for food stamp recipients

Quatashia Ezell Cuff shops for groceries with her 9-month-old son, Kiayden, in Boston on Jan. 30. Cuff is seven months pregnant and depends on SNAP to feed her family, but she, along with many other families, will not receive benefits until March or possibly later because of the government shutdown. (Erin Clark for The Washington Post)

The call came Jan. 19, just after Quatashia Cuff got back from grocery shopping, a task that had taken several hours because she’d made the trip out of Boston to shop in the suburb of Quincy. It was a long way to haul groceries, especially for someone seven months pregnant, but she’d learned long ago that getting by meant stretching her money as far as possible, and milk was often $2 cheaper out there.

A recorded message on the phone confirmed what she’d been bracing for: February’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, had been paid out early because of the government shutdown, so she had a little more money than usual for this time of the month. But the $359 on her benefits card would have to help carry her, her partner and their 9-month-old son until at least March 1, when benefits would resume if the government shutdown was fixed. If it wasn’t, no one knew what would happen.

Today, Cuff, 26, has only $242 left, and she has little faith that she’ll have money from the program to last the full month.

“I’m just wondering if I’m going to have enough,” Cuff said.

Nearly a week after the end of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, the Department of Agriculture’s hasty solutions to what could have been a food stamps crisis is still causing problems for many of the 39 million Americans who depend on food stamps.

Partway through the shutdown that left hundreds of thousands of workers without pay and paralyzed much of the federal government, USDA rushed to roll nearly $5 billion in benefits by Jan. 20, weeks ahead of schedule. In the vast majority of states, SNAP benefits are staggered throughout the month according to last name or Social Security number. Suddenly, millions of families that normally get their benefits toward the middle of the month will have to live off what little they have for about 50 days. And if Congress doesn’t find a deal to keep the government open, their safety net might be torn away.

Food banks, already strained from supporting workers whose lives were upended by the shutdown, have been left to deal with the maelstrom of confusion and misinformation caused by the early rollout. And when SNAP runs dry, they’ll face a flood of needy families.

“I can’t imagine what other situation outside a natural disaster would put this kind of pressure on our network,” said Robin Safley, executive director of Feeding Florida, the state food bank association that feeds about 2.8 million people each year.

The law stipulates that no household have intervals of more than 40 days between SNAP benefits, but now, SNAP recipients in most of the country will have to go longer than that. A USDA spokesman said that the agency is reviewing the situation and hopes to provide guidance to state SNAP agencies “in the near future."

SNAP isn’t meant to cover all of a household’s food needs. According to a study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the SNAP formula assumes that families will spend 30 percent of their cash income on food, and offers families what they assume they’ll need to fill the gap. On average, SNAP covers about $1.40 per person for every meal, according to USDA data. For most families, this isn’t nearly enough, leaving many families to rely on food banks toward the end of the month. The USDA’s shutdown solution will increase that need, said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at CBPP.

“Given the parameters of the shutdown we were grateful the USDA found a way to put out February’s benefits, but it does have this ripple effect of exacerbating the end of month scarcity problem,” Dean said. “We’re telling these families they’ll have to manage this money for 50 to 60 days. … It’s taking a preexisting scarcity and exacerbating it.”

As February draws closer, food banks are preparing for a level of demand that many aren’t equipped to handle. Safley of Feeding Florida said her organization’s food banks are studying patterns around the state, trying to predict which areas will have the most families in need. They’re connecting with food banks in other states, too, aware that the needs they’ll have to meet might require resources outside of Florida. Emily Bryant, executive director of Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, the state’s food bank association, said her network is reaching out to all their donors, including many retailers, trying to stockpile as many goods as possible.

“The closest thing I can think of to what we’re dealing with is the situation we had during the recession,” Bryant said.

The USDA did not require state SNAP agencies to notify households about the early distribution of February’s benefits, leaving families in many states puzzled by the unexpected money and how to use it. Through word of mouth, bulletins and social media, food banks have struggled to address these questions, but confusion has still been rampant.

In South Carolina, a flier began circulating on social media, telling those on SNAP they’d have to spend all their benefits by Jan. 31 or else lose them entirely. Someone emailed a version of the notice to Sue Berkowitz, director of S.C. Appleseed, a legal justice center that deals with social issues and income inequality. The flier might have been the result of dangerous misinformation, but Berkowitz worried it might be something darker.

“My fear was that it was an effort … to try to hurt SNAP beneficiaries to try to make the point that people spend money without thinking about it,” Berkowitz said.

Berkowitz and her team raced to discredit it, but she worries that the damage might have already been done.

“If someone were to have seen that an acted on it, it’d leave them with nothing,” she said.

Adequate notice about the early rollout still didn’t ease the shock for Victor Stewart, 67, who found out through an email that his $175 in monthly SNAP benefits would have to last until March 10. Without any financial cushion, Stewart moved to Clearwater, Fla., last year to care for his ailing mother. Since she died in December, the little money he came with ran out. He’s struggling to find work, spending days at the library applying to jobs he doesn’t hear back about. Aside from the occasional money he makes doing handyman work for other seniors in his retirement community, his SNAP benefits are his only means of feeding himself.

“In the beginning I didn’t think it’d be so important in my life,” Stewart said. “Now I just feel like, ‘How could I survive without it?’ ”

With $100 left by the end of January, going to the grocery store has become a punishing task. He tries to stick to things like rice and beans, which are cheap but filling enough to carry him through leaner days. But when he looks around the store, it seems as if the average cost for items is $5 or $10. The high prices overwhelm him.

“I realize I need to be very careful,” Stewart said. “I feel like I’ve already overspent.”

With five mouths to feed, making money last two months is a nearly impossible ask. Shadonna Williams, 37, gets about $700 a month in SNAP benefits to support her and four of her kids: two teenagers, a middle-schooler and an elementary-schooler. The family moved to Columbia, S.C., because Williams had a job opportunity. But the job fell through, leaving her stuck in Columbia with no income, no support network, a truck she can’t afford to fix and a litany of health problems. She and the children are living in transitional housing.

School takes some of the pressure off Williams. The children will get a hot meal there, and sometimes the school even sends food home with them on weekends, aware of the hunger they face outside the classroom. But they were home in early January for winter vacation, and school in Columbia has been canceled a few times for bad weather. By the last day of January, Williams had already spent most of February’s benefits, just trying to keep them fed.

“When the kids are home, all they want to do is eat and eat and eat,” Williams said. “I wish it could have stretched longer.”

With her money dwindling and the fate of SNAP uncertain, Williams sat her children down the other day and tried to come up with other ways to eat. When the family lived in Hilton Head years earlier, they planted their own vegetables in the backyard. Suddenly, staking their food on their farming abilities and the whims of nature seems more reliable than SNAP.

“We had a discussion going on about anything we could do to make sense of the situation, how to try to do something to benefit us.” Williams said. “I’m starting to feel like I’m going to have to learn how to do some real farming and grow my own food, because I don’t foresee things getting better anytime soon."