A certain shutdown narrative has become all-too-familiar: It is holding us back from gazing at the National Zoo’s pandas throughout the day and perusing the halls and walkways of our national museums and parks.
But for millions of the nations poor, the situation could soon be far more serious, and simply moving a gate or clicking on a link to another video won’t solve their problems.
Though many of the programs that provide assistance to needy families and individuals like food stamps, Medicaid, and Medicare will continue running during the shutdown, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is barely holding on.
The nearly $7 billion dollar program that provides access to food, formula, nutritional education, breast-feeding support, and health-care referrals to 9 million poor mothers, babies, and children is having to rely on $125 million in contingency funds from the USDA to continue operating throughout the month.
Douglas Greenaway, the president of the National WIC Association, a D.C. based nonprofit, calls the money a “sneeze” and warns that clinics will be forced to close their doors and end benefits if normal funding doesn’t resume by the end of the month.
“This [shutdown] has created a level of uncertainty in the lives of already vulnerable families,” Greenaway told TIME. “We’re doing everything on a temporary basis. This is not the way to efficiently run a program like WIC.”
Tiffanie Peters, a participant in the WIC program in Ohio and a mother of four, told TIME she rushed out to gather produce and baby food for her 6-month-old on Thursday because she doesn’t know when the vouchers she received for the month will no longer be accepted.
“I’m worried,” said Peters, who gets about $75 a month to buy the right foods she needs to provide healthy breast milk to her baby. “[WIC] keeps our cycle of life continuing.”
Fifty-three percent of all infants born in the U.S. rely on WIC, according to the National WIC Association and participants in some states have already faced the reality of going without the services.
In Utah, clinics had already closed their doors and stopped enrolling new participants before receiving the emergency funds from the USDA, which amount to $2.5 million, according to the Utah Department of Health. The program serves about 66,000 moms, babies, and kids in the state.
Jennifer McCreedy, a 38-year-old single-mom of one in Chestertown, Md. who participates in WIC, says though the program has funding available, she is still anxious.
“I’m still fearful, I keep thinking to myself, ‘Should I go and cash all of these checks? Should I load up on groceries so I’m covered?” said McCreedy in a phone call with TIME. “There is no way I would have been able to afford formula for my child without WIC…I think the women who depend on WIC for formula will be hurt the most.”
Another program that’s beneficial to low income families is Head Start, which already suffered a 5% cut in funding because of the sequester. Twenty-three Head Start programs in 11 states have grant cycles that began on Oct. 1, leaving 19,000 kids at risk of losing Head Start services due to the shutdown. About 5,354 children are already out of school because five programs have already closed their doors due to a lack of funding, according to the National Head Start Association.
Jonathan Bines, the Head Start director of the Five County Child Corporation, which services 900 kids in Mississippi, was one of the many directors of Head Start programs who had to halt educational services to low-income kids at the beginning of the week.
“We’re backed against a wall. We don’t have any funding to provide support, ” Bines told TIME. “A lot of parents are frustrated because some of them are saying the option to provide day care [is] pretty much impossible. Others said they just started a job and don’t have anyone to depend on to help.”
Bines says he has spent the past couple of days apologizing to parents though, he adds, there was nothing he could do other than warn parents on Monday that schools would have to close.
Families whose household income is at or below 100% of the federal poverty line are eligible for Head Start services, which provide educational and nutritional support to kids ages 3 to 5. For a family of four, that’s an annual income of about $23,500.
Hannah Matthews, the director of Child Care and Early Education for CLASP, a D.C. based advocacy organization, says at a time when programs are already operating at marginal levels, the shutdown could cause lasting damage.
“Right now we don’t have the means to support critical developments in quality and professional development,” Matthews said. “That could have a larger impact on how we improve early childhood care in the future.”
Matthews adds programs that serve low-income Americans continue to get hurt in budget decisions.
“Congress needs to put together a budget that invests in our future,” Matthews said. “One that makes sure low income families are not bearing the toughest burden of budget cuts.”
Bines agrees. “I’m watching the news and I see that Congress is trying to pick areas to fund back and I’m trying to figure out, what about children and families?” he said. “Seems like that’s not a top priority in terms of funding. Where do we place value in our nation? Is it children and families or is it parks?”