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Prolonged government shutdown threatens many Erie County grants, food stamps

More than 146,000 low-income Erie County residents could face the threat of hunger if a prolonged partial federal government shutdown continues, said County Executive Mark Poloncarz on Wednesday. Food stamps are the Social Services benefit most used by Erie County residents to help pay for groceries.

An extended shutdown would affect other public services, too, Poloncarz said. More than $1.5 million in suburban and rural community grants are delayed during the shutdown, as is federal grant funding earmarked to address the opioid drug crisis and DNA backlogs that affect the criminal justice system.

Also affected are thousands of federal government employees who are furloughed or working without paychecks, as well as contractors who rely on federal government contracts.

"This is hurting people in our country, in our community, and it's silly," he said. "It's all over a political stunt that backfired for the president. He said he was going to build a wall and Mexico was going to pay for it. Well, Mexico certainly isn't going to pay for it. He certainly isn't the great negotiator that he said he was."

He added, "Right now, the people who are paying for it are the people in the United States who are losing income because of the government shutdown and people who are at risk of losing services that put food on their table, and other programs in this community, like ending the opiate epidemic. It's asinine. It needs to stop, and we need to resolve this issue."

Among local programs delayed by the federal government shutdown:

  • $1.5 million in federal suburban and rural block grant money for everything from senior center improvements to rural transit services
  • $1.8 million to establish a probation program for those with opioid addictions and to create a review board to study and correct weaknesses in the response and treatment of opioid addiction
  • $463,541 to address forensic DNA backlogs

A last minute-reprieve to extend food-stamp benefits through the month of February makes the food stamp concerns voiced by Poloncarz less immediate. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters Tuesday that his agency will release money to states for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – better known as food stamps – early, on Jan. 20, before federal appropriations for the program expire at the end of the month.

But Poloncarz said he doesn't feel a sense of relief while the shutdown continues.

"There are lives at stake with this shutdown," he said. "People's food is at stake in the long run."

Social Services Commissioner Marie Cannon called the current situation "heartbreaking" and said it's unclear whether new new food stamp applications will be processed by the federal government. She and Poloncarz urged those who believe they qualify for food stamps to submit their applications by Jan. 20. Social Services will continue to accept applications throughout the shutdown period.

Of the 146,000 county residents who receive food stamps, she said, including 16,000 senior citizens ages 65 and older, and more than 50,000 children.

"There is almost no part of the county that will not be impacted by this," Cannon said.

Poloncarz also criticized Trump's Oval Office speech on Tuesday night, saying the president's remarks covered no new ground and were a poor attempt to maintain the support of his key constituents.

"I was very disappointed that the president sent out a fundraising email immediately before his speech and immediately after his speech, telling his supporters that he is fighting for them and fighting for the border wall," he said. "That’s all that yesterday was. It was political theater. It wasn’t what we need to do, which is get the federal government back to work."

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