A Government Shutdown Would Be Deadly for Hungry and Food-Insecure Americans

We shouldn’t have to beg lawmakers to provide funding for programs that have proven to reduce hunger, improve birth outcomes, reduce infant mortality, and promote healthy growth and child development. But we will if we must.

Updated Thursday, Sept. 28, at 10:20 a.m PT.

Kenya Pierce, 30, of Richmond, Calif., with her children on April 28, 2020. Pierce formally worked for WIC for nine years and is currently receiving WIC benefits. Every dollar invested in WIC generates about $2.50 in healthcare cost savings. Now, lawmakers are poised to eliminate this program that has supported women for decades. (Yalonda M. James / The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

In a pattern that feels all too familiar, Congress is once again at a complete gridlock, barreling toward a government shutdown. Pundits, advocates and everyone in between are placing bets about the length of a potential shutdown, which party will cave first, and which government programs will be brought to a standstill. Everyone knows that a shutdown will be disruptive, expensive and traumatizing for government employees and those who rely on government programs. And it signals a staggering dysfunction when those on the fringes can hold entire chambers of government hostage.

But what has been minimized by some as merely a political temper tantrum will also have a deep and scarring impact on the 40 million Americans facing hunger.

Playing a Broken Record

We just went through this. A mere three months ago, President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy finally agreed on a compromise to lift the debt ceiling and avoid a catastrophic economic situation. But in order to agree to this compromise, House Republicans demanded that the U.S. government must withhold life-saving food assistance from people facing hunger and poverty. These were cruel and shortsighted attacks on the structure and long-standing commitments of our government to those who are the most vulnerable and the president and House Democrats were able to forestall the most egregious of these.

And now, here we go again.

When our leaders target those who they deem as undeserving of help, we move backwards as a country.

How much more hunger and hardship can we expect these families to bear for irrational histrionics?

How many more times do we have to keep explaining that programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are intended to fight hunger and pull people out of poverty—that they are not work programs?

How do we compel reactionaries to stop restricting safety net programs that disproportionately impact women, particularly women of color, who are statistically more likely to be single mothers and live in poverty?

As advocates, it’s our job to press for meaningful answers to these questions—to put ourselves on the line to ensure that our country lives up to its values and its founding principles. My organization literally built a (virtual) museum to illustrate that when our leaders target those who they deem as undeserving of help, we move backwards as a country.

Basic Support for Women and Families

The debt ceiling bill imposed caps on federal spending, which have exacerbated advocates’ concerns about funding levels for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). President Biden’s budget called for boosted funds to match the increased participation in WIC, but apparently the House Republicans would rather cut benefits—access to fruits and vegetables—for 1.5 million parents and 3.5 million young children, toddlers and preschoolers.

Biden outlined just how awful a government shutdown would be for women and families, in a statement this week: “Extreme House Republicans are playing partisan games with peoples’ lives and marching our country toward a government shutdown that would have damaging impacts across the country—including putting vital nutrition assistance at risk for nearly 7 million women and children who rely on [WIC], a program that serves nearly half of babies.

“During an Extreme Republican Shutdown, women and children who count on WIC would soon start being turned away at grocery store counters, with a federal contingency fund drying up after just a few days and many states left with limited WIC funds to operate the program. … While House Republicans continue to debate what [continuing resolution] to advance, they have consistently refused to include the Administration’s request for additional WIC funding that’s needed to ensure the program can serve every eligible pregnant woman, new mother, and infant and young child.”

To provide a bit more context, since 1974, WIC has provided modest food benefits, breastfeeding support, and other services to low-income pregnant and postpartum mothers and their children. But now, because of the dysfunction in Washington, there is a real possibility that mothers and young children will be turned away from this program that has always enjoyed bipartisan support. Benefits will be cut and there will be a waitlist for the first time in decades. Lack of resources will likely force states to scale back their outreach efforts, reduce staff at WIC clinics, shorten clinic hours, and weaken the program’s overall infrastructure.

Stop for a moment and consider what this means. Not only are these narrow-minded lawmakers poised to eviscerate a vital and successful program that has supported women for decades, but they will cause unprecedented repercussions for millions of Americans. Insufficient funds for WIC will exacerbate existing disparities, particularly among low-income women and communities of color, who already face barriers and challenges in healthcare, housing, employment, and more. This is not “mere collateral damage”—it is a wholesale attack on women and their families. It would perpetuate a cycle of limited opportunities and risk adverse health outcomes for future generations.

Because of the dysfunction in Washington, there is a real possibility that mothers and young children will be turned away from WIC, a program that has always enjoyed bipartisan support.

MAZON and our partners in the anti-hunger community see this urgency and we are responding. We have joined our voices together and we are urging leaders in Congress to provide sufficient funding for WIC in both a short-term continuing resolution and through the next fiscal year—which should, in theory, last through September 2024.  

We, the American people, are telling the lawmakers to do their jobs. They were not elected to engage in performance art, histrionics and temper tantrums. They are not toddlers. We should not have to beg them to provide funding for a program that has proven to reduce hunger, improve birth outcomes, reduce infant mortality, and promote healthy growth and child development. But we will if we must. We are pleading with them to do the bare minimum to support the health and well-being of our children and families.

Oh, and every dollar invested in WIC generates about $2.50 in healthcare cost savings. Shouldn’t this be a no-brainer?

Pounding the Table

Next month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will release its annual food insecurity figures, and we will once again be reminded of the efficacy and import of a federal safety net. We will surely see that programs like SNAP, WIC and the child tax credit work effectively when they are sufficiently funded—just as we did this month with the U.S. Census Bureau figures.

We will dig in our heels, recommitting to protect SNAP from any further attacks. We will fight for key improvements in the next Farm Bill to support better and more equitable policies for communities facing historical and ongoing injustice, like Indigenous communities and the people of Puerto Rico, as well as those facing specific barriers to support, like military families.

We will tell cautionary tales like that of the 2018 government shutdown, when the world saw how many Americans, including furloughed government employees and Coast Guard families who had to wait to get paid, were just one missed paycheck away from a household financial crisis.

We will also continue to call out when some elected officials perpetuate tired and offensive stereotypes by blaming and shaming poor people—language that has been shown to dissuade people from seeking the help they need and to which they are entitled. It is reprehensible for those in power to try to make it more difficult for those facing hunger to access government support when they need it most.

We know how to support those who face hunger—now we must demand that our leaders find the political will to pass smart, compassionate, and lasting policy solutions to keep our government programs running and take proactive steps to reverse the course of hunger in this country.

That is our job. It is our commitment as advocates. It is our duty as Americans. And together we will change how it is, to how it should be.

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Abby J. Leibman is the president & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and was a co-founder of the California Women’s Law Center. Inspired by Jewish values and ideals, MAZON is a national advocacy organization working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel. Abby has received, among other honors, the California Women Lawyer's Faye Stender Award, Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles' Ernestine Stalhut Award, UCSD's Top 100 Influential Alumni Award, USC Law Center's Public Interest Advocate Award and the So. California Employer Round Table's Carol F. Schiller Award. She has a J.D. from Hastings College of Law and graduated magna cum laude from U.C. San Diego with a B.A. in political science.