Low-income families in Dane County could soon feel the effect of the ongoing federal government shutdown in a very real way.
About 53,000 local residents will lose their food stamp benefits if the shutdown continues past Nov. 2, says Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. Nearly 4,000 of these residents are pregnant women and families with young children, who will also lose access to benefits under the local Women, Infant and Children Nutrition Program (WIC), according to Lesly Scott, director of the program. An additional 2,000 residents who do not receive food stamps will lose WIC.
The federally funded Foodshare Wisconsin program begins processing November benefits on Oct. 17, according to the Hunger Task Force, a Milwaukee-based food distribution and advocacy group. A tenth of the claims are processed each successive day until Nov. 2. It is unclear what would happen to beneficiaries if the shutdown ends between Oct. 17 and Nov. 2, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.
Dane County residents receive more than $6 million in Foodshare benefits a month, according to Parisi. The program is for people who work but have low incomes, according to an online guide provided by the state. Benefits cover fruits and vegetables, meats, fish and poultry, dairy products and more.
If local residents lose their benefits, it will strain "already stretchedâ€ť local pantries and charities, says Parisi.
"[The shutdown] has real life consequences for people," he says. "The private sector and local government are already doing everything we can to help the local need."
Parisi recently announced the use of county funds to restore a senior meal program that suffered from the $85 billion in across-the-board federal spending cuts that began in January 2013, after Congress failed to put together a deficit reduction plan.
Largely funded by grants from the United States Department of Agriculture, WIC programs provide a range of services to pregnant women and families with children up to the age of 5. WIC vouchers can be used for baby formula and nutritious food for children, including fruits, vegetables and grains.
Each state has the power to decide how it implements the program, which is why the shutdown is affecting states differently. North Carolina has already stopped issuing vouchers for its residents, while Wisconsin will be able to stay afloat until Nov. 1 because of surplus funds, says Scott.
After that, the program's two Madison-area clinics, which are usually open five days a week, will have to scale back their services, which include check-ups and breastfeeding support. The clinics are planning "formula drives" to help families who lose access to these costly products.
"What we want to avoid is having our families not feeding their children because they have to choose between paying their rent or keeping their heat on, too," Scott says. "This is a daily struggle that most are looking at, and this program is really an integral part of their safety net."
WIC recipients would not be the only losers of a continued government shutdown. The program generates revenue for retailers and there are about 80 local stores that accept WIC vouchers, according to Scott.
People who rely on the assistance, however, will be the hardest hit. "With the uncertainties of Foodshare," says Scott, "the Nov. 1 deadline could be the perfect storm for low-income families in Dane County."