Trump administration officials said Tuesday that the Agriculture Department will be able to pay out food stamp benefits for the entire month of February — tamping down fears that the partial government shutdown could have resulted in rationing or halting of benefits.
The assurance that the food stamp program, which serves nearly 39 million people, would be on secure financial footing for February marked another major reversal from the administration in the ongoing shutdown fight.
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Just a few days ago, White House officials had said funds for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program were likely to run out in February if Congress didn’t act, an outcome that would have led to a sharp cut in benefits for millions of low-income Americans who rely on the program to help them pay for groceries each month. Democrats had seized on the White House’s threat as both sides tried to increase their political leverage as the shutdown, now in its 18th day, entered its third week.
The move follows a similar walkback on a White House threat last week that millions of Americans would not receive tax refunds as scheduled. Senior administration officials on Monday reversed course and said the refunds would be processed during the shutdown.
“We have tried to make this as painless as possible consistent with the law,” acting White House Budget Director Russell Vought said during a White House briefing on Monday.
USDA, one of nine federal departments without funding amid a dispute over border wall funding, will not have to dip into a reserve fund for SNAP to ensure that benefits are paid out next month, USDA officials said during a briefing on Tuesday.
The department can use an obscure provision in the last spending bill, a continuing resolution that expired on Dec. 21. The provision allows USDA to make payments that it is already obligated to make within 30 days of the expiration of the law, USDA officials said.
Due to that timing restriction, USDA is planning to dole out SNAP benefits for February earlier than usual — benefits will go out on Jan. 20 instead of at the beginning of February. Officials said they will look for other options to fund benefits for March, if needed, but they hope Congress will be able to restore government funding by that point.
“I believe this is ample time for Congress to act,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters.
Perdue said the administration was making the announcement now “in order to extinguish as much confusion and anxiety as possible.”
Almost 39 million people receive SNAP benefits in the United States. Nearly two-thirds of participants in the program are children, elderly, or people with a disability, according to USDA.
Late last week, White House officials told reporters that SNAP benefits would not be able to be paid out for February because the program was not funded past January and that a $3 billion SNAP contingency fund maintained by USDA would not be sufficient to cover benefits for the entire month of February. That raised the prospect — at least in theory — that significant rationing of benefits could have been necessary.
One month of SNAP benefits costs about $4.8 billion, according to USDA.
While USDA officials emphasized on Tuesday that the department’s funding plan for SNAP would not tap into the reserve fund, they would not discuss other possible funding or contingency options for March.
Funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which provides staple foods, infant formula and breast-feeding support to millions of low-income pregnant mothers and their young children, also has sufficient funding for February. The program serves about half of all babies born in the United States.
School nutrition programs, including school lunch and breakfast, have necessary funding through March, USDA officials said.
If USDA’s funding lapse continues, officials said they’ll look for other ways to keep federal nutrition programs running to the greatest extent possible.
“Americans should have access to food, and we will use all available legal options to make that happen,” said Brandon Lipps, administrator of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service and the department’s acting deputy undersecretary of food, nutrition and consumer Services.