The federal government is just days away from a shutdown slated to begin on Oct. 1 at 12:01 a.m., unless Congress passes a funding plan that President Biden signs into law.
Fueled by far-right Republican demands for deep cuts in spending, this looming shutdown could have disastrous consequences and has left many residents wondering how exactly it’ll affect them.
While certain federal benefits, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security won’t be impacted since they’re funded through separate processes, a shutdown would affect a number of other benefits—and legislation.
For rural communities, the effects of a shutdown will be felt even more acutely. Many federal employees live in rural areas, and these workers stand to be furloughed without pay until a shutdown ends, hurting rural communities and at least temporarily depriving local economies of income.
Rural communities could also miss out on crucial food assistance, housing support, and more.
“Whether it’s a couple days, a couple weeks, or a couple months, rural communities, especially ones that are relying on these federal programs, are going to feel it,” Matt Hildreth, executive director of RuralOrganizing.org said. “The government shutdown is really just the latest next step in what is complete and utter chaos from the Republican party.”
Here’s a breakdown of how else rural communities will be affected by a government shutdown:
Farm Bill and Food Assistance
While lawmakers have been busy trying to avert a shutdown, it’s become all the more likely that a farm bill won’t be passed on time.
Approved every five years, the farm bill is crucial for rural areas and affects nearly every aspect of the food system in the United States; it authorizes programs that have to do with conservation, nutrition, insurance, trade, and rural development.
The previous farm bill is set to expire on Sept. 30, though some programs will continue to receive funding until the end of the calendar year.
The farm bill is also the legislation that governs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps tens of millions of Americans feed their families. While SNAP benefits will continue as normal through October, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), families could see their benefits delayed in the case of an extended shutdown.
According to a 2018 analysis from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), 16% of rural households receive SNAP, a higher share of households than in metros and small towns. This means that should a shutdown occur, rural people will be the hardest hit by the pause in SNAP benefits.
A delayed farm bill could also cause certain food prices to skyrocket. Wheat, corn, and milk are just some of the products that could be impacted.
During a shutdown, farm service agencies will also stop making loans to farmers during harvest time, according to US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Other food assistance programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), will also be affected by a shutdown.
WIC provides food, nutrition information, breastfeeding support and more to low-income women and children up to age 5. The program serves nearly half of all babies born in the United States.
Vilsack told reporters earlier this month that the “vast majority” of the program’s participants would see an immediate reduction in benefits.
Rural assistance rental programs and farm labor housing programs could also lose funding in the event of a government shutdown.
According to the USDA’s latest rural development plan, the agency’s Rural Rental Assistance program—which covers the difference between 30% of an eligible tenant’s income and the monthly rental rate—would continue to provide support “if funding is available,” which will depend on how long a shutdown lasts.
As of 2022, roughly 300,000 households received assistance through the program and could be affected by an extended shutdown.
The USDA’s government shutdown contingency plan also notes that no new loans or grants would be provided during a shutdown, and,Vilsack confirmed earlier this month that new homebuyers will not be able to get loans in rural areas.
Finally, monthly housing assistance programs, such as public housing operating subsidies, housing choice vouchers, and multifamily assistance contracts, are also threatened by a shutdown. These programs operate only if funding is available, so if funding runs out during a shutdown, they would cease to operate, according to the Housing Assistance Council.
These subsidies help low-income families afford housing, and according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 1.5 million people in rural areas and small towns rely on rental assistance each year.
Many benefits provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—including VA healthcare, compensation, pensions, education and housing benefits—will still be available in the event of a government shutdown but certain resources provided by the VA would be restricted.
VA Secretary Dennis McDonough said during a press conference this month that the agency would not be able to conduct outreach with veterans during a shutdown. Public-facing regional offices would also close, and counseling, transition assistance, and cemetery grounds maintenance would not be available.
Many veterans live in rural areas, as almost a quarter of all veterans in the US, 4.4 million, return from service to reside in rural communities, according to the VA.
Roughly six in 10 of these rural veterans (61%) are enrolled in the VA health care system, which means that any VA operations ceasing would have a significant effect on rural communities.
Hildreth said that recovery from the shutdown will have a huge impact on rural people, as well.
At some point, whether it’s this week or two months from now after a brutal shutdown, Republicans in Congress will have to make a deal with Democrats to fund the government. Republicans are proposing severe cuts to crucial programs like housing and food assistance, which rural communities rely on.
The Democratic-controlled Senate and White House have refused to consider the GOP’s extreme demands, but depending on what a final budget deal looks like, the long-term impact of those proposed cuts could be worse than the short-term impacts of the shutdown.
“It’s not just that they’re going to shut down the government, it’s that the cuts that are going to be made to these programs in order to get the government back up and running, they’re going to be devastating,” Hildreth said. “For some reason, Republicans are taking rural voters hostage in this negotiation. The shutdown will come and go for the people in D.C., but the lingering impacts of the compromises and the cuts that Republicans insist on are really going to be devastating.”
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