On the fifth day of the government shutdown, 95 percent of the staffers who oversee food stamp programs were told not to come to work.
The staffing cuts will be accompanied by a lapse in funding if the shutdown persists, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said.
The staffing shortage and potential funding cuts prompted by the shutdown only add additional layers of uncertainty to the hundreds of thousands of hungry South Carolina residents who rely on the government to put food on the table.
In 2016, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was used by 16 percent of South Carolina residents. More than 72 percent of the state's SNAP participants were families with children. Across the nation, the average monthly SNAP benefit per person in 2016 was $127, or $1.41 per meal.
Last week, President Donald Trump moved to increase enforcement of a 22-year-old law that rescinds food stamps from adults who are not working. Currently, able-bodied adults ages 18-49 without children are required to work 20 hours a week to maintain their SNAP benefits.
The USDA’s proposed rule would also strip states’ ability to issue waivers, unless a city or county has an unemployment rate of 7 percent or higher, according to The Washington Post.
These issues were hotly debated during the two months Congress delayed its vote on the 2018 farm bill, a historically bipartisan piece of legislation that covers anything food-related, from crop insurance for farmers to farm loans for owners of heirs' property to food stamps. Congress voted in December to leave food stamps alone. Despite Trump's endorsement, Republicans abandoned the fight in December.
Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said Trump unfairly circumvented the desires of Congress. She was among many groups that spent years testifying to Congress about the benefits of keeping work requirements flexible. Lawmakers listened for a reason, she said.
"Starving people is not going to suddenly make people eligible for jobs," Berkowitz said. "It’s only just going to succeed in starving people."
House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, championed tighter SNAP work requirements in the House farm bill and praised the rule Thursday for “creating a roadmap for states to more effectively engage (Able Bodied Adults With Dependents) in this booming economy," according to the Post.
On Wednesday, of the 1,493 people employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Services agency, only 68 — 5 percent — were working.
The Department of Social Services administers nutritional programs in South Carolina. On Wednesday, spokesperson Chrysti Shain said it was unclear exactly how the shutdown would affect state resources. She noted that employees had the day off and that DSS would seek more clarity from the federal government Thursday.
"Our employees work hard every day to benefit our customers and the farmers, ranchers, foresters and producers who depend on our programs," Perdue said in a Friday statement. "During a shutdown, we will leverage our existing resources as best we can to continue to provide the top-notch service people expect."
The USDA contingency plan includes:
- No immediate money for domestic nutrition programs, including the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (a program focused on seniors over the age of 60), Women, Infants and Children, and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. However, these programs can continue to operate with state and local funding, if available.
- Funding through January for certain eligible households receiving SNAP benefits.
- Funding through February for Child Nutrition Programs, including School Lunch, School Breakfast, Child and Adult Care Feeding, Summer Food Service and Special Milk.
In February, the USDA solicited public comment on ways to reform SNAP, and Perdue has repeatedly voiced support for scaling back the program, the Post reported.
Before the regulations can change, the USDA will undergo a 60-day public comment period.
"We are not in favor of legislation that enacts additional work requirements for people who may already be struggling with hunger," said Jill Hirsekorn, spokesperson for the Lowcountry Food Bank. The coastal nonprofit is one of four South Carolina "SNAP-Ed" agencies that work with DSS to administer food stamps and teach residents about making healthy choices and being physically active on a budget.
Many people are a paycheck away from finding themselves in a situation where they need government assistance to put food on the table, Berkowitz said. In the event of a recession, tourism-driven economies like Charleston will see an increase in the number of people who need food stamps but may no longer qualify, she said.
For example, restaurant workers would see significant cuts to their hours and may not be able to maintain — or easily document — 80 hours of work each month.
"People in the service industry, they’re going to be the ones that are going to often need this benefit," she said. "Wouldn’t it be a shame if these kinds of rules are in place?"