With another potential shutdown looming, concerns over tax refunds, food stamps, and adequate housing for the state’s low-income residents are still significant.
The federal government’s 34-day partial shutdown – the longest in US history – impacted more than 64,000 federal workers in Virginia, the sixth most affected state. Wage loss totaled about $381 million just three weeks into the shutdown. Local agencies who work to house and feed low income communities saw the effects on these individuals firsthand.
Housing Families First works to provide shelter, safety and stability to those displaced by homelessness. The agency’s services include emergency shelters for families with children, a permanent housing program called “Rapid Rehousing,” and a hotline designed to connect people in need with a network of organizations.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about helping families get to stay in a permanent home,” said Beth Vann-Turnbull, executive director of Housing Families First.
Vann-Turnbull says that although most of their clients are not federal workers, the shutdown has sparked an increased insecurity surrounding the continued benefits of food stamps.
“Because of the shutdown, the February assistance was issued in January, and they asked people to stretch that through February,” she said.
The government could potentially resume its shutdown status on February 15, leaving people’s ability to access food stamps uncertain.
“In early February, the food stamp issue is ‘will be getting them?’” Vann-Turnbull said. “[Their absence] truly would create a crisis. People were already accessing food banks at a much higher rate.”
Doug Pick, CEO of the local food assistance agency Feed More, confirmed.
“Quantitatively, we have seen a 58 percent increase in hunger hotline calls in the last week,” he said in an interview conducted in the last days of the shutdown.
Feed More also hosted a pop-up food distribution for federal workers who were furloughed or working without pay.
“With only two days notice and one paycheck missed, we helped out 83 households,” Pick said. “We intend to do another one on Friday [January 25]. My guess is the same folks will come back, and word of mouth and a second missed paycheck will swell those numbers.”
Vann-Turnbull also worried that a prolonged shutdown would affect the processing of applications for new recipients of food stamps.
“That creates a great deal of stress for our families trying to budget food stamps, not knowing if they’re going to get them or when,” she said. “So that’s a very direct impact on many of the families we work with right now, trying to help them stabilize.”
Clients of Housing Families First are also concerned about the prospect of a delayed issuance of the earned income tax credit as part of their federal tax returns for this year. The IRS has made assurances that the government shutdown would not delay income tax processing for 2019, but the first weeks of tax season have seen the government processing refunds more slowly than usual.
Meanwhile, with the impending threat of another shutdown on February 15, experts are warning taxpayers to file as quickly as possible in order to avoid returns potentially being even further delayed.
“A lot of our families are looking forward to and depending on getting that refund to sustain them for several months going forward,” Vann-Turnbull said. “That supplemental income is a lot of concern to our families. If they don’t get that income tax refund, how will they make ends meet? It ends up being that little boost that really helps people make it through the rest of the year.”
Housing Families First is largely dependent – more than half of their million dollar budget – on the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The department was closed during the shutdown.
“Our grant [from HUD] for this year was already open and running, and that’s how we’ve been able to access it, through an electronic system,” said Vann-Turnbull. “However, if at some point over time HUD’s electronic system gets shut down, or can’t be fixed if it has a bug and there’s nobody there to to fix it, that would cause immense stress and a cash flow crunch to us. We would have to choose between not paying rent that we’ve committed to… or continuing to lay out money and not have it reimbursed promptly.”
The threat of the government shutting down again in February continues to leave Virginia’s most vulnerable populations in a lull of uncertainty and financial anxiety.
“For our families who are trying to get back on their feet, they have budgets that don’t have room for error, and don’t have room for food stamps or tax refunds to really be delayed,” said Vann-Turnbull. “That’s where it’s really been stressful in trying to plan for the unknown. It’s hard.”
Photo via Feed More