By Erin McAleer
During what is now the longest government shutdown in US history, funding for federal nutrition programs is drying up. The health and well-being of 42 million individuals who rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits — and hundreds of thousands more furloughed employees now struggling to live without a paycheck — are at unnecessary risk.
Unless a compromise is reached to re-open the federal government, 769,912 Massachusetts residents who rely on federal food assistance to make ends meet will not have enough food to eat. We are careening toward a man-made food crisis — a real national emergency.
SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps,” is a workhorse. The most effective anti-hunger program in the nation, it lifts millions of people above the poverty line and makes food accessible to low-income individuals and families. SNAP also generates economic activity. Every $1 of SNAP benefits generates $1.70 for the economy, supporting local communities and creating jobs. In addition, it boasts one of the most rigorous payment error measurement systems of any public benefit, with a one percent fraud rate.
The wide-reaching benefits which SNAP provides are in jeopardy unless the shutdown ends before Feb. 28, the date through which SNAP benefits are currently funded. If funding is depleted before the government reopens, local food pantries will be asked to absorb the need. To mitigate this man-made crisis, the state of Massachusetts may need to provide emergency funds to the emergency food network, but our emergency food system does not have the capacity to replace SNAP. For every one meal charity can provide, SNAP currently provides 12.
Since the shutdown began, more residents are calling Project Bread’s toll-free FoodSource Hotline to be connected to food resources in their communities. This includes a single parent of three children who works as a TSA agent at Boston’s Logan Airport, who called after falling behind on rent and daycare payments as a consequence of having not received a paycheck. Another woman who has worked since she was 15, and has been employed by the federal government for more than 22 years, called as well. She was hesitant to seek help because she said others have had it worse.
Senators, Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, have called for an end to the shutdown. It’s time for Gov. Baker to step up, too. The governor should use his influence on the Republican Governor’s Association to educate his GOP colleagues in the Senate about the devastating consequences of a further prolonged shutdown.
Real disasters befall our communities that are beyond our control, such as the 2011 tornado in Springfield and last year’s Columbia gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley. The shutdown, however, is the result of President Trump’s temper tantrum over immigration policy, not a natural disaster. Governor Baker ought to be taking a hard stance that makes clear states can’t afford to pay for this man-made crisis.
Baker’s capacity to rally bi-partisan support is proven. In 2017, when the Affordable Care Act was in jeopardy of repeal without replacement, Governor Baker worked across party lines to protect the health of Massachusetts residents. We implore him to again be the voice of reason and unity. We ask Gov. Baker to write a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging him to end the shutdown, and to do it quickly, for everyone’s sake. It is time for him to lead.
Food is a basic human necessity. And hunger is a non-partisan issue. Americans from all sides of the political aisle have an obligation to ensure that, at the very minimum, the least fortunate among us have food to eat.
Erin McAleer is the president of Project Bread. Individuals struggling without enough to eat can call Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline (1-800-377-1292) to connect with local food resources. Assistance is available in multiple languages.
This article first appeared on the website of WBUR 90.9FM, Boston’s NPR News Station. The Reporter and WBUR have a partnership in which the news organizations share content and resources.