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SNAP Benefits Come Early, Immigration Hearings Canceled

The partial government shutdown has passed an historic mark. As of Jan. 12, the standoff has become the longest in our history. Congress and President Donald Trump continue to disagree about funding for a wall or barrier along the southern U.S. border.
The next longest shutdown was during Bill Clinton’s presidency, lasting from Dec. 15, 1995, through Jan. 6, 1996. At press time, the shutdown has lasted 25 days. There appears to be no end in sight.
Hundreds of thousands of government employees remain furloughed or are expected to work without pay. Workers whose income has been suspended are expected to be paid in full when the government reopens, but many are resorting to unemployment insurance and other stopgaps to make ends meet.
Federal employees required to work without pay include Transportation Security Administration workers and members of the U.S. Coast Guard. More than 42,000 active duty members of the Coast Guard are among the only military personnel faced with the prospect of going without pay, due to the fact that the Coast Guard is under the Department of Homeland Security.
In an apparent effort to account for expected staff shortages, the Montana Department of Health and Human Services has notified recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that February benefits will be paid out early in four groups between Jan. 16-19.
While the early benefits disbursements may be a windfall for some in the short term, recipients should be aware that there may not be additional advance payments in the month of February or otherwise moving forward.
DPHHS director Sheila Hogan said the department will work diligently to load benefits onto SNAP recipient Montana EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards on Jan. 17. Normally, benefits are issued to recipients throughout the first week of each month.
Montana and other states received guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture instructing them to issue benefits early because of the shutdown. The guidance is part of a plan the USDA announced last week.
As a result of this change, recipients are encouraged to space their food purchases out throughout the month of February, rather than making mass purchases.
“It will vitally important for people to understand that this issuance is early, not extra,” Hogan said.
DPHHS also offered the following guidance:
Current clients who have already been determined eligible for February do not need to take any action to receive their benefits.
Current clients who are in the process of renewing or applying for benefits are encouraged to submit their documents as soon as possible.
After Jan. 17, DPHHS will continue to process new applications and will issue benefits through daily issuance as applications are approved. DPHHS is also communicating the early issuance of February benefits to various partner organizations such as local food banks, grocery stores, and social service agencies. DPHHS stresses that the early release of benefits does not constitute additional funding to individuals, but simply an early issuance of February benefits.
Recipients can call the Public Assistance Helpline at 888-706-1535. To check their account balance, recipients are encouraged to call the Montana Card Customer Service Help Desk at 866-850-1556.
The federal government has alerted states that they can issue benefits until federal funds are no longer available, but it is unclear from the federal government when that will occur. Hogan said the early issuance of February benefits will proceed, even if the federal government shutdown ends prior to Jan. 17. DPHHS will continue to monitor federal action and its impact on SNAP.
According to Fort Peck Tribal Councilman Jestin Dupree, the council voted Jan. 14 to assist reservation schools with Impact Aid application paperwork so they can submit their materials despite the shutdown. Schools incapable of doing so face a 10 percent penalty for late filing.
The shutdown has led to a spike in canceled immigration hearings, according to a recent report by TRAC, a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University. The report states that 42,726 Immigration Court hearings have been canceled as of Jan. 11. The group estimates that an additional 20,000 hearings will be canceled with each passing week of the shutdown.
Online operations for the United States Department of Agriculture in Montana are not being actively updated until funding has been reestablished. A voicemail message states that loan servicing offices at the state level are closed, with staff on furlough.
National Weather Service employees and other employees of the National Oceanic and Weather Administration are either on furlough or are working without pay. The NWS office in Glasgow will continue to perform essential duties but public functions have been canceled.
Despite the lapse in appropriations, Indian Health Services continues to provide direct clinical health care services as well as referrals for contracted services that cannot be provided through IHS clinics.