Once the budget snarl in Washington finally is untangled and the federal government is back up and running – hopefully in time to avoid a perilous default on the country’s debt – some of North Carolina’s poorest residents will be among those sighing with relief. But what happens in the meantime?
Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration has decided not to enroll new participants in the federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program because the money has stopped flowing from Washington. And if the unthinkable happens and the federal shutdown continues until November, it looks as if all the state’s TANF recipients will be out of luck. They’ll become yet another set of vulnerable folks not just inconvenienced but perhaps forced into actual suffering because of the budget impasse.
That North Carolina appears to be on the only state to suspend TANF applications simply adds insult to injury.
TANF, also known in North Carolina as Work First, serves 20,709 of the state’s residents, according to a report in The News & Observer of Raleigh. They include 6,948 parents of dependent children and 13,761 children who live with someone other than a parent. In September, the federal government spent $4.7 million to finance the program here.
As the shutdown dragged on, state officials announced a few days ago that the WIC nutrition program – another federally funded lifeline for many disadvantaged mothers and children – also would have to be put on hold. But apparently after it dawned on McCrory’s office how bad it would look for North Carolina to be the only state to stop issuing WIC vouchers, some emergency funds were located to try to tide the program over until the shutdown ends.
Rocks, hard places
Perhaps TANF isn’t linked as directly as WIC to averting child hunger, but if struggling parents see their assistance payments cut off, some will have to make the kind of spending choices all parents dread.
Pay the rent or put gas in the car? Buy food or bigger shoes for a growing kid to wear to school? The conservatives who’ve been resisting a budget deal in Washington, or who’ve been trying to wring a range of spending and policy concessions from President Obama and the president’s allies, either don’t understand the real consequences they’ve unleashed upon many of their fellow Americans, or they just don’t care.
It falls then to state leaders to try to buffer those consequences as best they can. When it comes to TANF, why not look harder to find those figurative nickels in the couch that could keep the program operating for the time being?
It’s also been suggested by the feds that if a state fronts money for TANF while the shutdown lasts, Washington will reimburse for the expense later on. And why not? This is a duly authorized federal program, after all – and one that in North Carolina has been whittled down until it covers only some of our most desperate neighbors.
Beneath the ceiling
While federal employees and those affected by federal programs have hung on the twists and turns of efforts to reach a budget agreement and end the partial government shutdown, the larger issue now looming involves whether Congress will agree to raise the federal debt ceiling. Treasury officials say that unless the ceiling is raised by Thursday, Oct. 17, the United States will not be able to pay its creditors – a nightmare scenario for a country whose prosperity long has been tied to the soundness of the dollar.
While some of those on Capitol Hill who insist on linking the debt issue to their shrink-the-government agenda say that a default would be no big deal, warnings also fly about how a default could send the nation’s and even the world’s economy spiraling back into recession. The effects would be profound, on rich and poor alike, as assets again shrank in value and jobs again evaporated.
Most poor people, even those on welfare, fervently want a chance to work a decent job at decent pay. Another recession would push that dream even farther out of reach. Whether it’s putting WIC and TANF back on an even keel – or staving off the threat of another economic calamity that would mean misery for millions, especially for those whose finances already are fragile – this is a time for state and national leaders of good will toward their fellow citizens to do what it takes.