Federal Nutrition And Welfare Programs Continue For Now, But Time Is Running Out

Every week between October and May, the state of Texas releases a report on the flu: how many people have it, and where the virus is most prevalent.

The first statewide report comes out Friday.  But because of the federal shutdown, there won’t be a companion report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Not all of the impact can be measured in dollars and cents.”

Dr. Umair Shah is the public health director for Harris County.

He says the CDC plays a critical role, gathering information from all 50 states and looking for trends that might indicate epidemics or food contamination.

“At the end of the day it’s one public health system.  It’s the federal government, the state government and local governments all working together as one public health system, and so what happens at the federal level, what happens at the state level, what happens at the local and regional level, they all impact each other.”

The CDC usually has seven employees embedded in Houston — one working on tuberculosis and six on HIV. Another CDC expert works at Harris County, helping plan for emergency mass casualty events.

Those workers are now off duty, although local teams carry on the research. 

But the more immediate concern seems to be social welfare programs like SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps.

Linda Edwards Gockel is a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

“The Lone Star card is what is used at retailers to purchase food items, and that card automatically has balances added to it each month.”

Every month, the commission loads the Lone Star cards with $400 million in federal funds. About 3.5 million Texans have the cards. 

Gockel says the federal government did fund SNAP for October.

But there was no October money for welfare or WIC, a federal nutrition program for poor women and babies.

Instead, state officials used leftover fund balances to keep those programs going — for now. But Gockel says that strategy won’t last long.

“It’s just not clear right now what would happen to benefits in the future if the shutdown continues for a number of weeks.”  

In Texas, more than 900,000 women and infants get assistance from WIC. In addition, 80,000 Texans get welfare support every month. 

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