MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
With just four days to go, House Republicans remain deadlocked on action to avert a government shutdown. The shutdown would affect a whole host of programs that lower-income income Americans depend upon, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is better known as SNAP. It's the largest domestic nutrition assistance program, and it would also affect the WIC program, which serves millions of low-income women, infants and children. Our colleague A Martínez spoke earlier with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about all this. A asked him first about the impact of a shutdown on those nutrition programs.
TOM VILSACK: Well, the SNAP benefits are not impacted. Initially. If we were looking at an extended shutdown, then there would be serious problems in terms of being able to comply and provide those benefits. The program that's most at risk immediately with a shutdown is the Women, Infants and Children Program, commonly referred to as WIC. It helps nearly 7 million pregnant moms, postpartum moms and children under the age of 6. Nearly 50% of all young children in the country participate in this program. When there is a shutdown, within a matter of days, benefits are cut off to these families. And that's an unfortunate circumstance because it compromises nutrition and health and obviously impacts and affects those families in a very real way.
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
So what would their options be if things get cut off, if the shutdown does happen?
VILSACK: Their options are they can't buy the food because they don't have the benefit. And they go without.
MARTÍNEZ: How are you preparing for that possibility?
VILSACK: Well, look. It's not my job to decide when the Congress and the House of Representatives does their job. I only hope is and my focus is on making sure that they understand that there's a real consequence if they don't do their job. And that consequence is that millions of moms and babes and children will not get the nutritional assistance that they need to be healthy. And that obviously has a long-term impact on the country. That's why these shutdowns are so devastating because they are very, very disruptive to the lives of ordinary Americans who count on programs like WIC.
MARTÍNEZ: And the Department of Agriculture can't do anything, just to be clear.
VILSACK: We have a contingency fund that will last a day or two. States may have some leftover funds that have not yet been used. But the vast majority of beneficiaries will see an immediate cutoff, if you will, of benefits. And the longer this shutdown, if it occurs, goes on, the more serious the consequences become. And if it is a long, long shutdown, then you're looking at not only WIC being compromised but also the SNAP program, as well.
MARTÍNEZ: Secretary, more broadly, I mean, should consumers be just anticipating that groceries might be more expensive? A family who's going to wait till next week, until it turns October, to buy their groceries for a few weeks - are they going to see higher prices if there's a shutdown?
VILSACK: I can't say that they're going to see higher prices. The group that I'm concerned about from a standpoint of food and the food supply are the farmers who produce the food because they, too, get impacted negatively by a shutdown. Oftentimes, farmers are in need of what are called marketing loans, which help them essentially hedge the price they get for the crops they're harvesting. If they can't hedge the price, then they basically have to take the price the market gives them, and they could lose profit. And that profit could be the difference between that farm family making a profit off the farm or not. And that's a real consequence, as well, of a shutdown because every county office that would work with farmers to utilize the marketing assistance loan program will be shut down. And farmers won't be able to access that program and a number of other programs.
MARTÍNEZ: And for you, Secretary, I mean, you've been in government long enough to encounter government shutdowns and the threats of a government shutdown in the past. I mean, are you numb to this political process? How do you handle this?
VILSACK: I tell you what - no one in this position should ever be numb to the process because you should always bear in mind the real people that get affected in a real way - that pregnant mom or that child who needs WIC assistance, that farmer who needs a loan or that young couple who's buying their first home who need a home loan from USDA, but they can't get the home loan, so the dream house goes to another buyer who is able to provide the financing more quickly. You can't get numb to the consequences of a shutdown that is reckless and unnecessary. And we shouldn't even be having this conversation if people would just do their job.
MARTÍNEZ: Then is it fair to say that I hear frustration in your voice that we get to the edge like this, and there are so many people's lives that are going to be affected?
VILSACK: That's fair. That's absolutely fair because I've been through this before. I've seen this play. And I know that it hurts people in a real way.
MARTÍNEZ: Tom Vilsack is the secretary of agriculture. Secretary Vilsack, thanks a lot.
VILSACK: Thank you.
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