Shutdown vs. Social Safety Net

The Partial Shutdown of the Federal Government Has Devastating Effects on Adults with Low Levels of Literacy and Numeracy

Numerous news articles and blog posts over the past few weeks have underscored the magnitude of the impact that the partial federal shutdown is having on low-wage workers and adults who are unemployed or under-employed. Not always recognized, but pivotal, is the connection with adult literacy and numeracy. As the National Skills Coalition relates in its report Foundational Skills in the Service Sector:

NSC’s data show that workers with low skills overwhelmingly have low earnings. Overall, 78% — nearly four in five service sector workers with low skills — fall into one of the two lowest earnings quintiles. … Low earnings are a problem for all workers with basic skills gaps, but they are especially problematic in the service sector. In particular, among workers with low literacy across all industries, 29% are in the bottom quintile for earnings, while among service sector workers with low literacy the percentage is substantially worse, at 38%. The numbers are similar for the second-lowest earnings quintile, with 33% of all low-literate workers and 39% of low-literate service sector workers falling into this category. (p. 14)

The shutdown’s negative effects on low-wage workers are thus of significant concern to the adult basic education and adult ESL communities as well.

Safety Net Programs

The Department of Agriculture provides food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Child Nutrition Programs, and the Supplemental Nutrition and Safety Programs, which include the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, among others. The department has found ways to continue providing this assistance through February, according to a press release from the Secretary’s office. If the shutdown continues into March, many low-income families will lose this essential nutrition support.

The Rural Housing Service at the Department of Agriculture helps low-income rural residents pay their housing costs. According to the National Rural Housing Coalition, the agency

Provides a rental housing subsidy to very low income households, elderly households, and persons with disabilitiesOver 270,000 families receive this assistance from USDA. The last rental assistance payments were made in December 2018. There is not any information available for January payments. Without those payments, housing for these families will be in jeopardy.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development provides critical housing support through the Section 8 voucher program. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition,

An immediate result of the shutdown is HUD’s inability to renew federal contracts for 650 Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA) properties, housing tens of thousands of low-income renters, that have expired since the government shutdown began. Additional contracts will expire later in January and February, should the shutdown continue for that long, as HUD does not have funding to renew contracts while the government is shut down.

The NLIHC also has a state-by-state breakdown of the shutdown’s effect on low-income housing.

The Department of the Interior provides supports for native American tribes through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Services include economic development programs, law enforcement, road maintenance, and disaster relief. Without an appropriation (and with 76 percent of its employees furloughed), Interior is largely unable to provide these supports.

Many of the operating divisions of the Department of Health and Human Services have been funded for 2019 through the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriation that was passed in the fall of 2018. However, according to the department’s contingency plan, many of the HHS-administered programs that support needy citizens rely on the appropriations for the Agriculture and Interior departments and thus are not currently funded.

  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: TANF helps families with children meet their basic needs. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, “TANF is funded through a mixture of federal funds and state ‘maintenance of effort’ (MOE) funds, so states can continue to provide benefits and services using state funds or unspent previously appropriated federal funds.” It is not clear how long states will be able to do this, however.
  • The Indian Health Service: The IHS provides health care for Native Americans and Alaska Natives. With the lapse in funding for the Department of the Interior, per the HHS Contingency Plan, IHS continues “to provide direct clinical health care services,” but “IHS would be unable to provide the majority of funds to tribes and Urban Indian Health programs.”

Civil Rights and Consumer Protections

The Department of Justice FY 2019 Contingency Plan notes that “a significant portion of the Department’s mission relates to the safety of human life and the protection of property, and primarily for this reason, the Department has a high percentage of activities and employees that are excepted from the Antideficiency Act restrictions and can continue during a lapse in appropriations.” Overall, therefore, only 16 percent of DoJ employees are furloughed. However, in the Civil Rights Division, 71 percent of employees are not excepted. As a result, there is a significant lapse in activity in the sections that provide essential protections for adults who may have difficulty protecting themselves from discrimination in housing, employment, and other areas. The sections of the Civil Rights Division charged with protecting civil rights include the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section, the Immigrant and Employee Rights Section, and the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section, which works to assure equity in language access.

At the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 85 percent of employees are furloughed. Activities related to receiving and investigating charges of employment discrimination are thus severely compromised. The EEOC provides information on the activities that it can and cannot carry out during the shutdown on its website.

At the Federal Trade Commission, 77 percent of employees are furloughed. The FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection investigates and brings charges against perpetrators of fraud, and raises consumer awareness about different types of scams, including Social Security scams, phishing scams, notario (immigration) fraud, and identity theft. A substantial portion of those served by the FTC’s work are adults with low levels of literacy and numeracy. The shutdown prevents the agency from fulfilling its essential consumer protection mission.

The Longer Term

Th federal government can only allocate funding appropriately for programs that support and protect America’s neediest if it has accurate information about the country’s population. With the lapse in appropriation for the Department of Commerce, the Census Bureau is operating at a deeply reduced staffing level. Whether and how the funding lapse will affect the Bureau’s preparations for the 2020 Census remains to be seen; the longer the shutdown continues, the more difficult it will be for those preparations to be carried out effectively. The possibility of incomplete or inadequate Census data is a concern for everyone, most particularly those who rely on the safety net that Census data informs.


This blog entry was written for the National Coalition for Literacy and posted on the NCL site.

For further reporting on the effects of the partial federal government shutdown on populations with relatively high levels of limited literacy and numeracy, please read:

Food stamps, rent aid and the safety net for America’s poorest at risk as shutdown drags on (Tracy Jan and William Wan, The Washington Post)

Shortfall may crimp ’20 Census planning (Tara Bahrampour, The Washington Post)

Shutdown leaves food, medicine and pay in doubt in Indian country (Mitch Smith and Julie Turkewitz, New York Times)

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