Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned that a partial federal government shutdown would deprive low-income pregnant women, infants and children under age 5 of access to nutritional foods, send more than 50,000 Agriculture Department workers home and limit farmers’ access to marketing assistance loans.
“The reality is that when there is a shutdown we’re looking at a significant disruption of the lives of millions of Americans. I’m here to suggest that there are consequences to real people in a real way when there is a shutdown,” Vilsack said Monday during a White House press briefing.
Vilsack said when the Women, Infants and Children special nutritional program runs out of money, 6.7 million low-income pregnant or postpartum women, infants and children would be left in limbo. He told White House reporters that a WIC contingency fund could keep the federal program going for a day or two after a shutdown starts. Some states that have unspent funds could continue their programs a little longer.
“The vast majority of WIC participants would see an immediate reduction and elimination of those benefits, which means the nutrition assistance that is provided would not be available,” Vilsack said.
The secretary appeared at the White House press briefing as part of the Biden administration’s campaign to highlight the ways a partial shutdown would affect government programs and millions of people.
“We are calling out how a shutdown would damage our communities’ economy and national security and we are going to hold extreme House Republicans accountable,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
The administration included an additional $1.4 billion for WIC in its list of requested anomalies, or items to be included in a stopgap continuing resolution that would fund the government after fiscal 2023 funding expires on Sept. 30. But with five days to go before the fiscal year ends, the House Republican majority looks unlikely to agree on a continuing resolution.
Advocates for the WIC program say the additional money is needed to cover increased participation by eligible families and higher food prices boosted by inflation.
WIC provides benefits for approved foods that meet nutrition needs of participants. The benefits are redeemable at certified retailers. The program also provides nutrition education, breastfeeding counseling and referrals to health and social services.
The larger Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides nearly 42 million participants broader food benefits, would receive aid in October, but Vilsack said a shutdown that extended beyond October would have “some serious consequences to SNAP.”
Farmers also could feel the effects of the government impasse as the Farm Service Agency’s county offices close, he said.
Those closed offices could affect the ability of farmers to get marketing assistance loans that provide interim financing to cover expenses during harvest time, Vilsack said. The loans enable farmers to pay bills while they wait for better market prices.
Limiting access to such loans “leads to a tremendous amount of stress for those farm families. Many farm families require off-farm income to be able to keep the farm and oftentimes they need that marketing assistance loan to be able to make sure that they can maintain the farm,” he said. “So, it puts at risk the small and mid-sized farming operation in terms of their ability to get credit when they need credit.”
If 50,000 USDA employees are furloughed, Vilsack said rural communities could feel the effects of those lost wages during a shutdown.
Congress passed a 2019 law requiring back pay to furloughed workers after funding resumes. Vilsack said a shutdown could limit the availability of USDA staff to work with lawmakers on the reauthorization of the farm bill which will also expire Sept. 30.
“Some senator or representative has a great idea about how they might be able to solve one of the problems they are trying to solve in the farm bill. They call our office for technical assistance,” Vilsack said.
“The phone’s not going to get answered because no one’s there. Why aren’t they there? Because we’re going to shut down. That’s why it’s so ridiculous for us to even talk about this. The speaker needs to do his job,” Vilsack said, referring to Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.