How government shutdown affects benefits for seniors, poor, jobless, veterans

Recipients of Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment benefits won't be hit by the government shutdown. The poor may be first to feel the pinch of the funding crisis.

Charlie Nye/The Star/AP
Indiana resident Joseph Lohman, 25, who served as a corporal in the US Marines from 2008-2012, shows his concern over the government shutdown by holding an American flag upside down, a signal of distress, as he has done since midnight. Lohman is concerned about veterans not getting their disability checks. "I'm not protesting," says Lohman, "I'm just standing for what is right."

A government shutdown has arrived, because Congress hasn’t reached an agreement on legislation to authorize funding for a new fiscal year. But what does “shutdown” mean for benefits such as Social Security that millions of Americans rely on?

The short answer is that it depends, but many key programs will remain funded.

Here’s the lay of the land, as it appears now, for major federal benefit programs.

Social Security and SSI

“Social Security and Supplemental Security Income [SSI] payments to beneficiaries will continue with no change in payment dates,” says a shutdown-related bulletin on the Social Security website.

Field offices will be open to provide some services, including processing new-benefit applications, the bulletin says. But shutdown puts a hold on issuing new or replacement Social Security cards, replacement Medicare cards, or proof-of-income letters.

Medicare and Medicaid

The Medicare program for seniors, like Social Security, is expected to continue without interruption. Both programs have funding sources that don’t depend on annual spending laws in Congress.

For low-income Americans, Medicaid should also see little impact from a shutdown of modest duration. That’s because federal funds for this joint state-federal program go to states on a quarterly basis.

Unemployment insurance

Jobless benefits are expected to flow as usual. They weren’t affected in a 1995-96 shutdown, notes Rep. Scott Rigell (R) of Virginia in a note to constituents describing the shutdown’s implications.

Welfare

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funding is cut off by the shutdown, but many states have funding available for carryover into the new fiscal year, Representative Rigell says. The amount of money varies by state, but most welfare funding should continue if the shutdown is short, his letter says.

For reference, some 4.4 million Americans were on TANF rolls in any given month as of 2010, according to a report last year by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Food stamps and nutrition assistance

Food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), will not be interrupted by the shutdown. It’s funded through October by the 2009 Recovery Act. School lunches and breakfasts will continue to be served during October.

The program known as WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) is in a tougher spot. No new funds will be available until a shutdown ends. Funds that states have on hand could “continue operations for a week or so,” the Agriculture Department says. The department’s own contingency funds would also help, but couldn’t cover the full month.

Veterans benefits

Health care and pension benefits will continue. As with most federal agencies, some services will be temporarily shut down or slowed down: The Veterans Affairs website will be updated only “intermittently,” the VA says, and vocational and educational counseling for vets will be limited.

The overall message: Many of the most widely used benefit programs can continue, at least for a time, unaffected by the shutdown.

President Obama warned Tuesday that this doesn’t mean the shutdown comes without cost. “The longer this shutdown continues, the worse the effects will be,” he said.

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