ALBANY — Despite the ongoing federal shutdown, some 2.7 million New Yorkers will be getting their federal food assistance benefits through February as a result of actions taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But as the government shutdown entered its 19th day Wednesday, there is wariness on the part of officials at the New York State Association of Counties, the umbrella group for the state's county governments. The processing of applications for food stamps and several other social service programs are managed in New York by county agencies.
County government executives are worried that a prolonged shutdown could force local taxpayers to fund federal food assistance and other social service benefits, officials said.
“While there appears to be no imminent disruption, there is a heightened level of uncertainty here that is impacting county-based social service programs," said Mark LaVigne, spokesman for the association.
Without an agreement in place soon on the federal budget, the county agencies could find themselves in "uncharted territory," he said.
"These programs would be converted from federal programs to state emergency assistance programs, which require a higher local contribution," LaVigne said.
Approximately 14.8 percent of New Yorkers participate in the government's SNAP program, slightly higher than the national level of 12 percent.
Meanwhile, the federal shutdown has led to 932 furloughed government workers signing up for New York's unemployment insurance benefits, said Jill Aurora, spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor.
As for federal benefits for low income people, a Tuesday night announcement from Sonny Perdue alleviated some worries about the short term future of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — the nation's food stamp program — could be in jeopardy again by March if the budget showdown has not been settled.
If benefits are disrupted for recipients, it will likely ignite greater demand for groceries and other provisions distributed by the hundreds of food pantries across the upstate region, said Linda Peace, coordinator at First Baptist Church Food Pantry in the Niagara County town of Newfane.
"Everybody is very apprehensive right now because you really don't know what's going to happen," Peace said Wednesday, a day when members of 13 low-income families stopped at the food pantry.
She said if food stamps run out due to the shutdown, the Food Bank of Western New York, based in Buffalo, would likely step up the amount of food it distributes to the more than 200 pantries in its regional network.
In Oneonta, Otsego County Rep. Gary Koutnik, chairman of the county committee that oversees social services, said: "SNAP is certainly a concern for us right now. If there is any doubt about the flow of funding, obviously that is going to cause anxiety. And even with the assurances that we're hearing (from the federal government), in the environment that we're in now, that is not so reassuring."
Rep. Antonio Delgado, a Democrat representing New York's 19th Congressional District, ripped the government shutdown as "irresponsible" and insisted that the federal Department of Agriculture improve its communications on its plans for the food stamp program.
"While I'm glad that the Department of Agriculture will at least continue benefits through next month, the agency needs to lay out its plans for how it is processing applications, communicating with families in the program, and addressing the lapse of funding if the government shutdown continues," Delgado said in a statement.
In Albany, the state Office of Temporary Disability Assistance's response to the latest USDA announcement that SNAP benefits will flow through February was guarded.
"We are reviewing the information they provided and seeking additional details," said Justin Mason, spokesman for OTDA.
USDA officials said in a statement that programs providing school meals and after-school services "have funding available to continue operations through March."
The federal agency, part of the administration of President Donald Trump, declared that the funding for food stamps is being made available "despite the inability of Congress to pass an appropriations bill that safely secures our borders."
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com