Shutdown affects millions using social services

As the partial shutdown of the federal government stretched on, more and more people began feeling its effects. One thing that social service providers and others who receive federal funding agreed on: The longer the shutdown, the worse it would be.

The first affected, of course, were the more than 800,000 federal government employees who were sent home without pay Oct. 1. News reports and social media that day were replete with reports of “shutdown happy hours” and in the ensuing days, federal workers talked of using the time to clean their garages or work on other projects. In a rare show of bipartisanship, the House voted 407-0 on Oct. 5 to approve back pay for furloughed workers.

But the shutdown also is affecting millions of other Americans, from those who use or work in Head Start preschools to mothers who rely on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, both of which are usually administered locally — in many cases by Catholic agencies — but rely on federal funding.

Care for ‘least of these’

In a letter sent to the U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 30, three bishops asked members of Congress to do everything possible to keep the government operating.

“The Catholic community defends the unborn, feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, educates the young, welcomes refugees, and cares for the sick, both at home and abroad,” wrote Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the Committee on Migration; and Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace. “In many instances, the government is a partner with the Church and its ministries in accomplishing this work.”

The bishops offered these guidelines for sound budgetary decisions:

“1. Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity.

2. A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects ‘the least of these’ (Mt 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.

3. Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times.”

Delayed benefits

That would include the 141 formerly homeless veterans who live at the St. Leo Residence on Chicago’s South Side. The men and women there depend on benefit payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Social Security Administration to make ends meet, said Eddie Taylor, director of the Catholic Charities-operated home. Early reports suggested that if the shutdown ends quickly, there will be no interruption in VA benefits. If it drags on for weeks, the checks would stop.

“That would have a devastating effect on our vets,” Taylor said.

The residence relies on funding from a variety of sources, including the VA, to provide “wraparound” services to the veterans, he explained. Some of its income comes from the rent the veterans pay, which is based on a sliding scale depending on their income. Because most of them had no savings when they came into the residence, and don’t receive much in the way of income, few have significant nest eggs built up to survive a delay in benefits.

But for many, the effects of such a delay would have effects that go beyond economic. “They have built their lives here around a certain structure,” he said. “Not getting their check disrupts that structure. They would be lost.”

In the case of the WIC program, the shutdown closed offices that provide support for clinical services, the purchase of food and administrative costs. Around the country, many agencies that have contracts to run local WIC offices said that they had enough food on hand to last anywhere from a week to a month, but other services, such as processing new applications to participate in the program, were halted.

Loss of Mass

While active-duty military personnel remained on the job, others who assist them could not. That decision has had a particular impact on Catholics, according to a press release from the Archdiocese from Military Services.

Because the only Catholic Masses offered most weekends on some military bases are celebrated by civilian priests on contract to the armed services, those priests were barred from celebrating Mass even on a volunteer basis, the archdiocese’s statement said.

“These men are employed by the government to ensure that a priest is available when an active duty Catholic chaplain is not present,” the statement said. “With the government shutdown, GS and contract priests who minister to Catholics on military bases worldwide are not permitted to work — not even to volunteer. During the shutdown, it is illegal for them to minister on base and they risk being arrested if they attempt to do so.”

On Oct. 5, the House voted 400-1 to pass a concurrent resolution allowing chaplains to celebrate Mass as a first amendment right. It’s unclear whether or not the Senate will concur.

Moral obligation

In their letter, the bishops said that the federal government has a moral obligation to care for people.

“The Catechism ... unambiguously states it is the proper role of government to ‘make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on’ (No. 1908),” they said. “In our country today, millions of Americans struggle to meet these basic needs, through no fault of their own, as a result of an economy that continues to fail to create sufficient economic opportunities. Last year, the poverty rate remained at a 20-year high. ... Over four years after the recession, 23 million Americans — more than 13 percent of the country — remain unemployed or underemployed.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.