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How a Government Shutdown Actually Hurts the Poor


Key Points

  • Government shutdowns occur when Congress doesn’t pass a set of bills that give federal agencies and services the approval and funding necessary to operate. 
  • Government shutdowns and political wrangling distract from the real issues facing the poor and delay much-needed safety net reforms that would help people move out of government dependency.
  • There are bipartisan solutions Congress can act on to better serve low-income and marginalized communities.

Government shutdowns occur when Congress doesn’t pass a set of bills that give federal agencies and services the necessary funding to operate. Without this approval, agencies must pause all non-essential activity until Congress takes action. Threats of government shutdowns often go hand-in-hand with political conflicts among federal leaders. When this dynamic takes hold in D.C., government shutdowns become, at best, a distraction from the real issues facing the poor and, at worst, a roadblock to efforts to move people out of government dependency.

What Happens During a Government Shutdown?

During a government shutdown, several disruptions happen:  

  • Many federal employees are temporarily out of a job. They are instructed not to show up to work and aren’t paid during the shutdown window, though they typically receive back-pay once a shutdown ends.
  • Essential government employees, such as military, air traffic control, and TSA, are expected to keep working without pay. 
  • Americans may experience delays in government-administered processes, such as permits and passports.
  • Benefits from Social Security, Medicare, and most other need-based programs still go out, but shutdowns often lead to furloughs or reduced staffing levels in federal agencies responsible for administering these programs. As a result, beneficiaries may experience longer processing times for applications, appeals, and inquiries. 
  • Nutrition programs, including SNAP and WIC, are the most at-risk from a government shutdown, with WIC being immediately impacted upon a shutdown (though benefits may still continue for some days) and SNAP having about a month of funding available after a shutdown.

Government Shutdowns and Safety Net Programs 

For many Americans who currently need assistance from programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), and Social Security, a government shutdown can be a fearful prospect. The worry of losing essential benefits and facing greater financial hardship can take a significant toll on individuals and families in low-income households and communities. 

The good news for these Americans is that need-based services are typically the last area to be affected and the first to receive any additional approved funding, and government shutdowns would have to go on for a long time—longer than the current record of 34 days—before beneficiaries notice any change in financial assistance. The biggest hurdle is that agencies may be slower to respond to applications, inquiries, and other administrative needs. 

Government Shutdowns Prolong the Suffering of Low-Income, Marginalized Communities

Government shutdowns can generate consequences and inconveniences across the country, but it’s important to recognize that not everyone bears the brunt of a government shutdown equally. 

A government shutdown may not cut off food stamps, social security, or other safety net benefits immediately. However, low-income and vulnerable communities still suffer because their struggles get lost in the midst of political conflicts. The impending shutdown is brewing because political wrangling and polarization continue to distract federal leaders from addressing real problems and broken safety net systems.

There Are Solutions Congress Can Act On to Create Better Pathways Out of Poverty

To better serve people living on the margins, federal lawmakers must stop avoiding the reality that the design of our safety net is a barrier, not a bridge, to opportunity. 

In the current system, recipients are forced to navigate multiple, disconnected programs, eligibility requirements, and caseworkers—a maze that becomes a trap for welfare dependence instead of a secure path out of poverty. Government shutdowns can certainly add to this tediousness and complexity, but there’s a bigger question looming in the background: How do we design our safety net system so that it  actually helps Americans become more self-sufficient and regain hope and dignity along the way? 

There are solutions Congress can implement.

Expanding the One Door Model to Bridge Welfare and Work 

The One Door Model does away with disconnected programs and integrates human services with work support so that beneficiaries who are capable of working have a clear, supportive, and accessible path to personal well-being and meaningful jobs.

This reform improves safety net services by: 

  • Streamlining programs and making the system easier for recipients to navigate.
  • Building a bridge to work, training, and education to promote self-sufficiency over dependency. 
  • Providing cost savings for federal and state budgets.


One Door To Opportunity

The purpose and direction of our safety net programs are to help and not hinder opportunity. We must build a system that provides one door to access opportunities leading to thriving. This is a dramatic change in how we deliver help to those in need.

One Door To Opportunity

The purpose and direction of our safety net programs are to help and not hinder opportunity. We must build a system that provides one door to access opportunities leading to thriving. This is a dramatic change in how we deliver help to those in need.

The first and only state to adopt this approach is Utah, where it has changed the lives of thousands—everyone from single mothers to ex-offenders seeking a fresh start. The One Door Model is a fix all states could implement…if Congress would allow them. Under the current federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), states are blocked from adopting the reform. Congress could change this simply by revising WIOA. 

Removing the Barrier of Benefits Cliffs 

All safety net programs suffer from a benefits cliffs problem. A benefits cliff is when an individual, family, or household loses more in benefits from government assistance programs than it gains from additional earned income.

When a person experiences a benefits cliff, they are thrust into serious difficulties: loss of housing, going hungry, fearing that their children will be taken by Child Protective Services, and more. While most people don’t want to depend on government assistance long-term, a higher wage often doesn’t offset the vulnerabilities created by a sudden, steep loss of benefits.

The One Door Model, work requirements, and other welfare-to-work solutions can encourage more people toward employment and independence, but this approach isn’t a full solution. As long as benefits cliffs exist in the safety net, people will face a significant barrier that incentivizes them to choose government dependency. Reforms are needed at both the federal and state levels to empower more households to overcome benefits cliffs through steady work and typical pay raises so that they can achieve self-sufficiency more quickly and securely. 

Knowing that practical, life-changing solutions are out there, we can look at government shutdown debates in a different light and ask: What are the political games in DC costing communities? For millions of Americans, the tragic answer is that it’s costing them the chance  for a more fulfilled, self-sufficient life as long as federal leaders devote energy to political distractions instead of bipartisan opportunities to fix our broken safety net system. 

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