The Trump administration pledged Tuesday that Americans will receive food stamps through February despite the partial government shutdown, but officials could not promise those benefits will continue if the shutdown lasts until March.
Congress has only approved funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program through January, fueling concern food benefits used by 38 million Americans would expire amid the budget stalemate in Washington.
In a call with reporters on Tuesday, Agriculture Department officials said that they will give states the money for February’s food stamps ahead of time — by Jan. 20 — to circumvent the expiration of federal appropriations. States, which administer the SNAP program, will have to ask for the money to be allocated earlier than they normally would.
The move is part of attempts by the Trump administration to limit the pain inflicted by the government shutdown now in its third week, as officials scramble to prevent essential federal services from expiring.
“I know there has been genuine concern across America” about food stamp benefits, said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “The benefits for February will be provided. … It works and is legally sound.”
SNAP beneficiaries will not see cuts to their benefits through the end of February even if the shutdown continues, said Brandon Lipps, acting deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.
The White House earlier this week also directed the Internal Revenue Service to issue tax refunds during filing season, a reversal of long-standing policy. Earlier Tuesday, the Agriculture Department said it would extend the application period for farmers requesting checks under its bailout program to mitigate damages from the trade war with China.
Trump administration officials could not guarantee that food stamp benefits would be paid if the shutdown extends beyond February, instead blaming Congress for not giving Trump money for his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We provided another month of SNAP benefits,” Perdue said, adding that the Agriculture Department did so at the request of the White House. “I believe this is ample time for Congress to act and send an appropriations bill [Trump] is able to sign.”
The USDA is relying on a provision in the government budget bill that expired Dec. 21 that allows the federal government to make certain payments up to 30 days after the budget’s end.
USDA officials said they already give “early issuance” of SNAP funds to states that are facing natural disasters and seeking to disburse money to beneficiaries before they hit, according to Agriculture Department officials. This solution is similar, though it has never been used in a government shutdown, officials said.
This solution will not dip into a $3 billion contingency fund for food stamps. It could not immediately be learned if that money could help cover benefits payments in March. The emergency funding would be enough to cover only about two-thirds of what the program has paid out in recent months.
Child nutrition programs, including school meals and after-school nutrition programs, will continue to have funding through the end of March, according to officials. The USDA office in charge of SNAP has sent home 95 percent of its employees without pay during the shutdown, the department’s website says.