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Federal government shutdown could hit most vulnerable Minnesotans first

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack warned this week that if the federal government shuts down, a nutrition program that helps low-income mothers and their children would end “immediately.”

Breastfeeding baby
In 2021, WIC served more than a third of all infants born in Minnesota.

WASHINGTON — Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack warned this week that if the federal government shuts down, a nutrition program that helps low-income mothers and their children would end “immediately.”

And there are other safety net programs that help low-income people that would be impacted very quickly and hit hard if the federal government closes this weekend.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, about 106,000 low-income women, infants and children younger than 6 participate each month in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly known as WIC. In 2021, WIC served more than a third of all infants born in Minnesota.

The program provides recipients, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, with foods that are rich in calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C, and access to nutrition and breastfeeding education.

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Vilsack said, “That program expires, if you will, or stops immediately when the shutdown occurs,” although it might stumble on for a few days or even a week because a USDA  contingency fund can keep it going for a day or two. Some states also have leftover WIC funds.

“We are advising WIC local agencies, vendors, and participants to continue with the program for the time being,” said Scott Smith, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health. “Using federal funds already allocated to the state, this program can continue to operate through the first part of October even if a federal shutdown occurs.”

The federal government is in danger of shutting down one minute after midnight on Saturday because Congress has failed to pass any of the 12 appropriations bills that would fund all federal agencies in the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Attempts to pass a short-term funding bill to give Congress more time to complete its work have also faltered in the U.S. House, and the nation appears to be marching toward a shutdown. That has put programs serving the nation’s most vulnerable at risk.

Food stamps, known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, will continue to provide benefits through October. But if a shutdown stretches into November, those benefits are likely to be threatened, Vilsack said.

SNAP provides nutrition benefits to about 450,000 Minnesotans each month.

Other programs, including those that provide heating assistance to low-income Americans and those that fight homelessness could also run out of money fairly soon.

Gov. Tim Walz expanded the school meal program to all students, but the program continues to rely on federal funding for about 43% of the cost of Minnesota’s Free School Meals program.

Schools would ask the state for reimbursement of the cost of serving October meals in November. Kevin Burns, spokesman for the Minnesota Education Department, said the state could afford to cover the full cost of the program – if a federal shutdown is not long-lasting.

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“We are confident we will be able to fund the school meals program in the short term,” he said.

A shutdown that lasts a month or more would also begin to impact the state’s Head Start Centers.

Although none of the 33 Head Start grantees in Minnesota has contracts that would be renewed on Oct. 1, four of them have contracts that would need to be renewed on Nov. 1. Those four grantees run Head Start centers in 11 counties, including Anoka, Olmsted, Freeborn, Winona and Cook counties. If the grantees cannot renew their contracts, their Head Start centers would close.

Kraig Gratke, executive director of the Minnesota Head Start Association, said 800 to 1,000 children – and their families – would be impacted. He said his association is already preparing messages to send to Head Start families before the middle of October so they could prepare for the possible closure of facilities.

“It’s not something that we want to spring on people,” Gratke said, adding that families whose children attended full day Head Start may have to make other child care plans so they could go to work.

Gratke also said Head Start students have already been hurt by the pandemic’s shutdown.

“It’s hard for everything to shut down again,” he said. “Families lose a sense of security if programs that they count on are shut down.”

Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget, said the Walz administration is in “a fact-finding stage” this week when it comes to the impact of a shutdown.

“We are currently gathering information from state agencies to evaluate instances where a federal fiscal year 2024 appropriation is needed, or where a previous appropriation will expire in the near future, to understand the potential impacts on state programs and personnel,” Hogan said in an emailed statement. “What we know right now is, the longer a shutdown lasts, the greater the impact to state programs and services will be.”

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U.S. Senate puts forward a plan

On Saturday at the MinnPost Festival, Walz said federal shutdowns “are incredibly damaging and extremely costly.”

“And they are 100% avoidable,” Walz added. “Nothing good comes from a government shutdown.

The most recent federal shutdown occurred in December of 2018  and lasted 35 days. It was sparked by a dispute over the funding of former President Donald Trump’s border wall, but it was only considered a partial shutdown because five of the 12 appropriations bills needed to fund the federal government had been approved, including a massive Pentagon spending bill.

This time the impact of a shutdown would be more widespread, and, depending on its duration, more devastating to individuals and the economy.

About 17,000 federal workers who live in Minnesota would stop receiving paychecks, although those who are considered “essential” would have to show up for work anyway.

Essential workers would include TSA agents and traffic controllers at the airports, federal prison guards, federal law enforcement officers and some of those who work in the offices of members of Congress.

“Sen. (Tina) Smith’s Washington and Minnesota offices will remain open to support the senator in fulfilling her constitutional duties and assist constituents to the extent that we can,” said Shea Necheles, spokeswoman for the senator. “We are still finalizing details for office operations in the event of a shutdown.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. Amy Klobuchar said the senator’s offices in Washington and Minnesota would remain open to help serve constituents even in the event of a shutdown.

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In contrast to their staffers, members of Congress would continue to receive a paycheck.

While Social Security and Medicare payments would continue, there would be delays in enrolling new individuals in these programs. National parks like Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park, could be shuttered.

(The National Park Service) doesn’t have anything to offer at this time,” a spokeswoman for the agency said in a Tuesday email in response to questions about the fate of the parks.

There will be several last-minute attempts in Congress this week to avoid a shutdown, but the success of any of those efforts is not by any means assured.

With House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-California, unable to unite House Republicans behind a short-term spending bill that would avert the shutdown, the Senate stepped to the plate on Tuesday by moving forward with a plan of its own.

Its short-term solution, which cleared a procedural hurdle Tuesday on a vote of 77-19  would fund the government for six weeks and include additional funding for Ukraine and domestic disaster relief.

“The senator believes we must work together to avoid a shutdown because we can’t let our economy slide backwards. Today, we had the initial vote to advance a short-term bipartisan bill to keep the government funded, which is a positive step,” the spokeswoman for Klobuchar said.

But McCarthy said Wednesday that the Senate bill would not be considered in the House. He plans to try to push through a short-term spending bill, called a continuing resolution, that would cut federal programs much more severely, targeting many safety net programs, contain no money for Ukraine and include GOP border measures.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the timing of Walz’s comments on the impending shutdown.

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