Social Services Today

Government shutdown hit home
Nov. 09, 2013 @ 10:53 PM

Former Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neill famously coined the phrase “All politics is local.”  We certainly saw the local impact the shutdown of the federal government could have here in Durham. 

As you certainly know, the U.S. government shut down this past Oct. 1 through Oct. 16, limiting most routine operations.  And while much media attention was focused on the closure of national parks and the furloughing of federal employees, we at Durham DSS concentrated on preventing crises in the lives of the Durham residents we serve.  During the shutdown, we received daily briefings from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on what the impact would be on our clients.

Federal funding supports many DSS programs including Work First, Food and Nutrition Services and child care subsidy.

The Work First program is designed to provide parents with short-term job training, job search assistance and related support and services.  Because of the curtailment of federal funds, DSS had to stop providing services for individuals who were searching for jobs, in training or working through Work First Employment.  Because of this, more than 100 people who had been receiving cash assistance saw that money dry up. Ultimately, this ends up hurting families, many with small children, who need that money to eat and live.

We were preparing to send letters notifying recipients of Work First cash assistance that their payments would stop. Fortunately, the federal government resumed operations before we had to do that.  Initially, we were told that we could take new Work First applications but not process them and then we were informed that we could take and process new applications but that the recipients wouldn’t get any benefits. 

Child care was another area impacted during the shutdown.  We received notice that child care benefits would be reduced by more than $8 million, impacting 2,200 families in Durham.  We notified childcare providers, letting them know that they wouldn’t be reimbursed for the care they were offering and were in the process of notifying parents about this.  Fortunately, the shutdown was lifted and no one lost payment or child care coverage.

We held daily conferences with state personnel to determine the latest news on how the shutdown was affecting Food and Nutrition Services, one of DSS’s largest programs.  Our staff met daily, crafting plans to help the individuals and families that we serve.  We understood the stress our client families were dealing with and tried to ameliorate this with planning for the unknown.   

During the shutdown, we made plans for referring clients to community agencies for support but we know that those groups don’t have the resources to fill the gap left by a lack of government services.  While the shutdown is over for now, government spending levels were authorized only through January 15.  While I always hope for the best none of us knows what the future holds. The Department of Social Services is working with the state to develop viable options to continue services if such a shutdown happens again. 

Michael Becketts is the director of docial services for Durham County.