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Since 2013, the federal government has “shut down” four times, three of those times during the Trump administration. A government shutdown occurs when there is a lapse in federal funding because Congress and the White House are unable to agree on appropriations. Usually, this happens because of political brinksmanship, the most recent example stemming from a dispute over the White House refusing to fund the government without first obtaining appropriations to build a border wall between Mexico and the United States. Government shutdowns are inevitably terrible for Americans, especially seniors, because of the loss or slowdown of important government services.  

Many people’s first thoughts about seniors being impacted by a government shutdown are about Social Security and Medicare. While these programs still make payments during a shutdown, Social Security and Medicare still feel the pinch during the government’s closure. For example, basic activities like processing new applications for seniors who desperately need a source of income and health care are delayed, and Social Security has gone as far as terminating the issuance of new cards during a shutdown. 

While Social Security and Medicare are still functional during a government shutdown, our country’s nutrition programs that benefit older Americans, like Meals on Wheels and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), could be impacted more significantly. For instance, the office of Food and Nutrition Services that oversees SNAP could see major staff reductions during any shutdown.  Furthermore, if the shutdown persists too long, SNAP could run out of funding completely, which would impact the 4.8 million people aged 60 and above who rely on the program. Lastly, in the run-up to the government shutdown of January 2018, Meals on Wheels America President and CEO Ellie Hollander, said, “The number of hungry, isolated seniors who may not know where their next meal is coming from has doubled over the past 20 years…A government shutdown for any considerable length of time would lead to a delay in federal funding reimbursements for meals and services delivered, forcing Meals on Wheels programs to make near impossible choices such as suspending meal services, initiating or expanding waiting lists for meals, reducing the number of meals or delivery days or even closing their doors altogether.”

Obviously, B’nai B’rith International, as a sponsor of Section 202 supportive housing for the elderly, takes a keen interest in funding lapses that impact the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  During a short-lived government shutdown, HUD should be able to meet its basic obligations to the Section 202 program.  However, the longer shutdowns last, the greater the likelihood HUD won’t have the funding to meet its core responsibilities.   

During any government shutdown, members of Congress or the President should not be advancing their own political agenda at the expense of government programs that benefit seniors and all Americans. Basic needs like nutrition and housing should be fully funded, without the threat of a government shutdown. The exact impact of a government shutdown always varies. However, the harm it causes people remains constant. While the most recent government shutdown will eventually end, at this point in our country’s history, another shutdown always seems sadly inevitable. 


Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School.  Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.