By The Herald Editorial Board
Barring what would have to be a literal last-minute deal at midnight Saturday, don’t expect the U.S. Congress to avert a full government shutdown, following the failure — mostly among House Republicans — to secure even a temporary budget pact when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
And unlike the last shutdown, which began in late 2018 and continued for 35 days, this one will cut deeper and for as long as members of Congress remain at an impasse. The last shutdown, a tussle between the then-Democratic House and then-President Trump over funding for his proposed border wall, spared several agencies because Congress had earlier passed funding legislation for the departments of Defense, Labor and Health and Human Services.
This, instead, will be the Full Monty of government shutdowns, meaning that depending on the agency and who is considered an “essential employee,” hundreds of thousands of federal workers will either be stripped of their jobs or their paychecks; furloughed without pay or told to stay on the job, without pay.
Except Congress; members of Congress — thank the founders and the Constitution — aren’t in jeopardy of missing a paycheck.
Members of the military, postal employees, air traffic controllers, airport security and others stay on the job. Others, such as those processing new applications for Social Security and Medicare, inspecting seafood and produce or leading Head Start classes for children, won’t report to work for the duration.
As well, amid hurricane season and continuing wildfire risks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is rationing its grants and assistance to victims of previous disasters, in anticipation of the shutdown.
And while most benefits, including Social Security, will be paid on schedule, limited staffing for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services could hamper oversight of health benefits and requests for information and other customer service.
Oh, and lower-income kids from birth to 5 years of age are likely to find infant formula, food and immunizations to be harder to come by.
Depending on which state administers the program, those enrolled in the Women, Infants and Children program, which provides supplemental nutrition vouchers for formula, fruits and vegetables and other food, could see benefits run dry in a matter of days or weeks. Washington state residents, including 25,600 infants and 76,400 kids among a total of 130,400 people, should still receive benefits at least for a “couple of months,” a state administrator told the Washington State Standard this week.
Washington’s WIC program, administered by the Department of Health’s Office of Nutrition Services, operates on about $150 million a year, the program’s director Paul Throne said, and has about $26 million on hand, enough, it’s hoped, to carry it through a shutdown similar to that of 2018-19.
Along with the loss of WIC, kids have borne much of the federal government’s claw-back of benefits in recent years as pandemic relief programs have ended.
An expanded child tax credit expired at the end of 2021, and at the end of the month — on the same deadline as the federal budget — child care subsidies for more than 3 million children will end.
The loss of the expanded child tax credit — which had provided up to $300 a month per child and opened the benefit to lower-income families — was blamed as partly responsible for more than doubling the percentage of children living below the federal poverty rate in 2022. Largely because of the expanded credit, the child poverty rate had declined to 5.2 percent in 2021; after its sunset, the child poverty rate more than doubled to 12.4 percent in 2022.
While pandemic stimulus payments to all Americans and other relief helped to lift kids out of poverty, the expanded child tax credit is credited with most of the heavy lifting. Had the expanded credit been in place in 2022, even as other pandemic aid ended, the child poverty rate would have been about 8 percent, estimates Christopher Wimer, director of the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, as reported in a recent New Yorker interview.
The loss of child care may be less noticeable to the public but still deeply felt for many families and employees working in child care. Along with ending the child care subsidies for about 3.2 million children, about 70,000 child care programs are likely to close in coming months and 200,000 workers could lose their jobs with the subsidies’ end, according to a report by The Century Foundation. In Washington state, more than 58,200 kids will lose child care and more than 2,170 programs will close, the report said.
Beyond the best interests of kids’ early education and social development, the loss of day care will force some families to choose between paying even more for child care or prompting one parent — in a two-parent home — to leave their job at a time when employers remain keen to fill labor shortages in a number of industries. An even starker choice faces families with one parent.
There are proposals in Congress to restore both the expanded child tax credit and the child care assistance program. But Congress, hard pressed to get even basic government funding restored — and fitting it within the limits that Democrats and Republicans have already agreed to with the debt-limit agreement adopted earlier this year — may see both proposals as expendable in search of reopening the government.
There’s the tragedy in this current budget fiasco: As bad as it is to furlough government employees, ask others to work without pay, hamstring good government service and risk the loss of benefits, the brinkmanship imposed chiefly by Republican extremists — who have placed personal point-scoring above country and even their own party — has diverted the nation’s representatives from honest debate and fair compromise in meeting the nation’s needs, especially regarding childhood poverty.
And poverty carries heavy costs, not just in its failure to assure the daily needs of a child, but in the loss of opportunity for that child, the child’s community and the nation.