Shutdown threatens food programs; millions in lost wages


By Andrew Graham and Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile.com

Wyoming could face serious funding holes to services for its neediest residents if the partial federal shutdown drags on — a prospect for which state lawmakers lack concrete plans as the state wrestles with its own budget struggles.

The state’s economy has just begun to feel the effects of the shutdown. The bulk of the 3,674 non-military federal employees in Wyoming did not receive paychecks Friday. Those lost wages cost the economy roughly $8.3 million, an analysis of data from the Wyoming Division of Research & Planning indicates.

Funding for food stamp programs administered by the Wyoming Department of Health and Department of Family Services will dry up in February and March if the shutdown continues, state officials say.

The DOH and DFS stand to lose as much as $4 million a month.

Lawmakers meeting in Cheyenne haven’t yet addressed the looming problem. The Joint Appropriations Committee is not preparing to shore up the programs with state funding, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne). “At this point no,” Nicholas said when asked if the JAC was preparing for that eventuality.

With government solutions lacking, DFS looked for help from Wyoming citizens in a Monday news release.

“DFS is encouraging people to donate funds, food, or volunteer at local food banks and similar organizations that may see an increase of customers if the shutdown continues,” the press release said.

The Legislative session is scheduled to run until Feb. 27, though legislative leadership or Gov. Mark Gordon could keep lawmakers in the Capitol by calling a special session. The JAC is holding hearings this week with various state agency heads about their budgets. The full Legislature will eventually vote on a appropriations bill that lawmakers could amend.

The DFS is making its February payment to SNAP recipients early. If the shutdown continues into March the agency will run out of funding, an agency spokesman said. The state receives around $3.5 million a month for the program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Department of Health administers WIC, a separate food aid program for women, infants and children. That funding will last through March, agency spokeswoman Kim Deti told WyoFile. If the shutdown extends further, the state will face another $670,000 a month hole or cut WIC off to people relying on it.

There are 12,224 Wyoming families receiving SNAP benefits each year, DFS Ombudsman Clint Hansen told WyoFile. There are 9,500 participants in Wyoming’s WIC program, Deti with DOH said.

Lawmakers could add money to an emergency fund for the governor to draw on to keep the programs running, House Majority Floor Leader Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) said. Barlow is the former chairman of the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee.

The Democratic leader in the House took a stronger tone, warning that a special session will be needed to make sure the services don’t dry up.

“That is an appalling lack of consideration by the federal government and we as a state will take care of our most vulnerable people,” said House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie).

Gordon is aware of the concerns over WIC and SNAP payments but has not identified specific state funds to replace them if federal funding runs out, Gov. Gordon’s spokeswoman Rachel Girt said. The governor’s office is researching options to counter shutdown impacts if it continues, Girt said.

At the Seton House — a Casper program to help single-parent families that are at risk of becoming homeless get back on their feet — Executive Director Deanna Frey worried about her clients if the programs dry up. Almost all her clients use WIC or SNAP benefits as they transition to stable footing, Frey said.

Today, she works with 30 parents and 55 children receiving SNAP benefits, she said, and another nine children receiving WIC benefits. Seton House requires people to find employment within 60 days of entering the assistance program, Frey said, but government assistance carries families through that transition.

“Our goal is to get them to the point where they don’t have to rely on that but they’re here for a reason and they need that help for a time,” she said. “The initial job they’re getting may be part time positions making minimum wage or just over. They don’t work 40 hours a week and their schedules change frequently.” Her clients still have to make rent or pay for gas to get to work, she said.

“Not having the ability to have the SNAP benefits or the WIC benefits to provide for their children is going to put them in very dire straits,” Frey said. “It’s going to put people at risk for food security.”

Though some children receive breakfast and lunch through school programs, “there’s that weekend thing, that dinner thing, and so some of the kids will go to bed hungry.”

People enrolled in Seton House’s programs have been asking how the partial federal government shutdown will affect them, Frey said. Across the state, Frey said, community members are helping friends and neighbors affected by the shutdown, whether furloughed or working without pay. “They take care of their own,” she said.

“I would trust our legislators to pay attention to that and I hope that they would have conversation about … what the state can do,” Frey said.

The food stamp programs are the biggest looming impacts from a continued federal shutdown on the state’s balance sheet, according to a memo from the Legislative Service Office to JAC lawmakers.

On Jan. 7, the state received its monthly deposit of federal mineral royalties payments — $74.9 million. “There are currently no indications of any major disruptions in these payments for the foreseeable future,” LSO Budget and Fiscal Administrator Don Richards wrote in the memo.

Other state agencies mentioned in the memo included the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Agriculture. The DEQ hasn’t immediately been affected, Richards wrote, and can operate using its current federal and state grant money “through the next several months.” Similarly, the Department of Agriculture has “been told by their federal partners that the majority of federal agriculture funds have already been appropriated or are considered essential functions.”

The SNAP program, which is not considered an essential service, was funded by USDA only through January, according to a Dec. 21 USDA news release.

“Most other domestic nutrition assistance programs, such as the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, WIC, and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, can continue to operate at the State and local level with any funding and commodity resources that remain available. Additional Federal funds and commodities will not be provided during the period of the lapse,” the release says.

Richards summary did not include the impacts to Wyoming’s private sector — from stalled drilling operations and timber sales to tourism impacts to aid programs to farmers. Nor, he wrote, did LSO’s summary “address the Wyoming citizens who are federal agency employees.”

WyoFile estimated the lost wages from a summary of federal employees’ earnings assembled Jan. 11 by the state’s Research & Planning division of the Department of Workforce Services (see document below). In that summary, editor Michael Moore compiled data from the second quarter of 2018, the latest information available.

WyoFile used the figures and a list of federal agencies affected by the partial shutdown to estimate the federal payroll for a two-week period. The estimate doesn’t take into account seasonal variations in employment — the hiring of seasonal workers, for example. Nor does it account for the skeletal cadre of essential workers who may be receiving paychecks.

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.