WASHINGTON — Doris Cochran, a disabled mother of two young boys, is stockpiling canned foods these days, filling her shelves with noodle soup, green beans, peaches and pears – anything that can last for months or even years. Her pantry looks as though she’s preparing for a winter storm. But she’s just trying to make sure her family won’t go hungry if her food stamps run out.

For those like Cochran who rely on federal aid programs, the social safety net no longer feels so safe.

As the longest government shutdown in U.S. history stretches into a fifth week, millions of poor Americans who depend on food and rental assistance are becoming increasingly worried about the future. Most major aid programs haven’t dried up yet. But each day the stalemate in Washington drags on, the U.S. inches closer to what advocates call a looming emergency. Those dependent on the aid are watching closely under a cloud of stress and anxiety.

“I just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Cochran said, “and that’s what scares me the most.”

With no indication of an imminent compromise, the Trump administration in recent weeks has scrambled to restore some services across the government. But two agencies crucial to the federal safety net – the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture – remain largely shuttered.

The USDA announced earlier this month that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food aid to roughly 40 million Americans, will be fully funded through February. But should the shutdown stretch into March, its status is unclear: With just $3 billion in reserves, the USDA won’t be able to cover the roughly $4.8 billion it pays in monthly benefits.

The department was able to stretch the program for another month based on a loophole in a spending bill. But as a result of congressional rules, food stamp benefits allotted for February are being given out early, before Jan. 20. There is no guarantee recipients will get food stamps for March, but if even if the program continues without a lapse, recipients would have to stretch their current allotment for at least six weeks, rather than four.

The impact of any lapse in these programs would be dramatic and unprecedented: The USDA says there has never before been a break in food stamp benefits since the program was made permanent in 1964.

Food banks are already stretched thin thanks to a notable spike in demand from furloughed federal employees, contractors and others out of work from the shutdown, said Carrie Calvert, the managing director for government relations at Feeding America, a hunger relief organization. For every meal Feeding America’s network of food pantries serves, federal food aid provides 12.


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