The government shutdown could soon hit Letcher County families and businesses where it hurts — in the bellies of children, and the cash registers of grocery stores.
Kentucky released federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp) benefits for February on January 20, more than a week early, because the government is running out of money and would not have been able to guarantee the benefits if it waited until the first of February. Those will likely be the last SNAP benefits distributed until the shutdown ends.
If that happens, it could cause a chain reaction of economic losses.
“It’s going to hurt,” said Gwen Christen, whose Isom IGA receives about 20 percent of its revenue from customers buying groceries with their Electronic Benefit Transfer cards.
“If I lose 20 percent of my volume, I’m going to have to cut at least 20 percent of my payroll,” Christen said.
At Food City, which operates stores throughout the South and is one of the 50 largest supermarket chains in the nation, President Steve Smith said the company has seen an increase in sales in states that released the benefits earlier last week, but “we’re in uncharted territory” when it comes to what happens if the shutdown continues and more benefits aren’t released.
“Hopefully prudent individuals will try to budget what they have, but some won’t,” he said. “I expect February will be a little lower and I don’t know about March.”
At IGA, Christen said she saw more people Sunday and Monday buying staple foods — potatoes, pinto beans, oatmeal. “Things that last a long time. They’re getting prepared,” she said.
The government shutdown has already reached a record number of days. Many workers have been called back, but without pay. Some of those are calling in sick. CNN reported that 7.5 percent of Transportation
Safety Administration workers called in sick on Monday.
With few federal employees in Letcher County, the damage done by the shutdown has been largely invisible, but the potential loss of SNAP may inflict more pain than anything else. Statewide, about 13 percent of residents receive SNAP, but in Letcher County, 29.7 percent receive SNAP, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit focused on eradicating hunger in the United States. The average household benefit is $245.28 per month.
The 5th Congressional District, which covers all of eastern Kentucky, has the highest rate of SNAP eligibility in Kentucky at 24.7 percent.
While Christen is worried about cutting payroll if the shutdown continues, the much larger Food City chain wasn’t ready to say that’s a possibility yet.
“I don’t know that we would cut hours or lay people off for a short-term thing, and I don’t anticipate the shutdown going on too long,” Smith said. “I may be wrong, but I hope I’m not. Typically these shutdowns last for a few weeks and cooler heads prevail.”
So far, there is little indication that will happen anytime soon.