Those who receive federal food assistance will get their February benefits early as part of a temporary fix that funds the critical program for another month despite the government shutdown, prompting concerns that people might not budget properly if they don't know what's going on.
The workaround that allows for the continued funding of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, for another month requires that February benefits be distributed to recipients by Jan. 20.
Normally, Illinois SNAP recipients would get those benefits during the first 10 days of February.
Illinois officials scrambling to get the word out held a press conference Friday emphasizing that the benefits that land in people's SNAP accounts on or before Jan. 20 will have to last through February.
"It will be really important that people understand that this is early, not extra," said James Dimas, Secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services, which administers SNAP in the state.
Retailers that accept SNAP are also bracing for the rush that could occur when every SNAP recipient receives benefits at the same time, rather than on a rolling schedule as usual.
"We will see a large uptick in sales over the weekend as they are finding the benefits on their card," said Hannah Walker, director of government relations for the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association representing grocers and food retailers.
FMI is launching an outreach campaign across all 50 states to urge its members to staff up and stock up for the long weekend Jan. 20 falls on, especially on perishables like produce that are common purchases through SNAP, Walker said. The organization also is urging retailers to educate customers about the early disbursement of SNAP benefits to help people understand that they won't be getting an additional allotment in February, she said.
"We're all taking very seriously the customer education side," Walker said.
SNAP, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, helps 38 million low-income Americans purchase food, and the budget stalemate has raised grave concerns about food security should the program's funding is disrupted.
Though Congress had approved funding for the program only through January, the USDA on Tuesday said benefits would be continue through February thanks to a provision that allows federal agencies to make certain payments up to 30 days after the budget bill expired Dec. 21
It's unclear what will happen to the program if the stalemate continues into March.
"People are working on that question," Dimas told reporters Friday. "Hopefully the impasse is cleared up before then."
Some 800,000 federal government workers have been furloughed during a partial government shutdown that has dragged on for 21 days and counting as President Donald Trump insists on funding for a wall along the Mexican borders and Democrats refuse.
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com