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Michigan rushes to send out food stamps amid federal shutdown

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Detroit's Eastern Market accepts food stamps as payment for fruits and vegetables.

Lansing — Michigan is rushing to hand out February food stamps this weekend to 1.2 million low-income residents as part of an early move to ensure assistance next month amid the partial shutdown of the federal government.

The federal impasse has not yet had a major impact on state government services or programs, but officials are bracing for significant funding challenges if the record-long shutdown continues in coming weeks. Nearly 40 percent of Michigan’s budget comes from federal sources.

The Trump administration last week announced it will fund February food assistance so long as states pay out the benefit by Jan. 20. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services plans this Saturday to start loading early payments on to Bridge Cards.

But the state is cautioning recipients against extra trips to the grocery store.

“We’re trying to emphasize to our clients that when they get this extra payment in January, that’s taking place of their February payment,” said Health and Human Services spokesman Bob Wheaton. “We don’t want them to think it’s a bonus payment and then have February come around and they don’t receive assistance that month.”

The state believes federal funding will be available to continue February benefits for more than 200,000 mothers, pregnant women and children through the Women, Infant and Children program. But other forms of assistance for vulnerable residents could be in limbo if the shutdown continues indefinitely.

Federal funding for cash assistance and day care programs are set to run out early next month, Wheaton said. “Unless something happens between now and then, there’s going to be an issue of whether we’re able to provide those benefits beyond February," he said.

Nearly 40,000 Michigan residents receive cash assistance through the Family Independence Program, and more than 34,000 qualify for child care assistance, according to the most recent data available.

State department directors are reviewing programs that could be affected by the federal shutdown and developing plans “to keep people protected,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Tuesday.

“I’m hopeful that the federal government reopens, but in the meantime, we’re going to make sure … we minimize the impact, whether it is on food stamps or it is in unemployment,” the East Lansing Democrat told reporters at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

“There are a lot of things happening at the state level that we’re going to make sure people are aware of so that they can get the help they need in the short term — and I hope it is short-term,” Whitmer added.

It's not yet clear how or if the federal government will continue food stamp funding beyond February if the shutdown continues. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provided the early payment under a 30-day extension provision of an expired continuing resolution. 

Some legal experts say it would not be legal for the federal government to end food stamp funding in March because federal law requires the program to continue unless Congress votes to reduce it. 

Any delay or reduction in assistance could have a ripple effect on the personal budgets of recipients and strain supplies at federally funded food pantries, said Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, which advocates for low-income residents.

"While they budget these food assistance programs for emergencies, they are not budgeting for a manmade humanitarian crisis created by people in D.C.," said Jacobs, a Democrat and former state lawmaker. "The fact this has not been resolved is so disconcerting."

The early food stamp distribution is the latest in a series of local impacts caused by the shutdown as President Donald Trump refuses to reopen the government until Congress agrees to spend more than $5 billion to build a wall or barrier along the United States' southern border with Mexico to deter illegal immigration. 

Citing the shutdown, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality last week announced indefinite postponement of a joint hearing with the federal Environmental Protection Agency on drinking water contamination in West Michigan. 

The state and federal agencies had been set to hold a Jan. 23 hearing at Rockford High School to address an ongoing investigation of PFAS "forever chemical" contamination near a former Wolverine Worldwide dumpsite.

Beyond that delay, the shutdown is not yet hurting environmental quality programs in Michigan, said state department spokesman Scott Dean.

The most notable impact so far is that federal counterparts "are not able to engage in routine matters, such as sharing data, participating in calls and meetings, issuing permit decisions, and providing technical support," Dean said, noting "impacts may become more significant if the shutdown continues for an extended period." 

The partial federal shutdown, which continued Tuesday for a record 25th day, has already affected federal workers across the state who have been furloughed or asked to work without pay. U.S. Coast Guard members were expected to miss their first paychecks Tuesday, and federal courts are expected to run out of money on Friday.

"The dysfunction in Washington, D.C., related to this government shutdown is having a real and negative impact on the lives of federal employees right now," State Budget Office spokesman Kurt Weiss said in a memo. "The shutdown needs to be resolved so these valued federal employees can start getting their paychecks again."

New Michigan Budget Director Chris Kolb last week launched a comprehensive assessment of the federal shutdown and his office determined there will be “no major impacts” on state government programs or operations through Feb. 5.

But the state is already planning another assessment if the federal stalemate continues through Jan. 21, which appears increasingly likely. The state last conducted a similar review during a 16-day federal shutdown in 2013.

 “This being the longest federal shutdown on record, this is not a typical exercise for state government,” Weiss told The Detroit News.

Michigan has started to see a slowdown in grants from the U.S. departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development, likely as the result of furloughed federal workers, according to the budget office. A Housing Choice Voucher program that provides rent subsidies for very low-income residents could be affected Feb. 12.

Getting food stamp payments out early is "a large undertaking" for the state, "given the short time frame for issuing the benefits," Wheaton said. "We have had program staff and technology staff working on it since the USDA announced the early issuance plan last week."

Funds will be added electronically to Bridge Cards, but the Department of Health and Human Services is also taking extra steps to make sure recipients understand they are receiving an early payment and why they should not spend it immediately. 

The state is posting notices through MI Bridges, the online portal where residents can apply for an track benefits, is messaging through local offices across the state and is encouraging case workers to verbally explain the pending payments to their clients.

Recipients who don't see extra money on their Bridge Card account Saturday should receive it next week, according to the state human services department. Michigan food assistance is typically issued to clients over a 21-day period through the month. 

To check their balance, Bridge Card clients can dial the customer service number on the back of their card, go to a website also listen there or check at a participating store by running it through an electronic scanner.