The United States is facing a government shutdown.
Republicans in Congress have yet to reach a deal on a spending bill — and if they fail to do so or work out a stopgap measure by Saturday, the federal government will shut down. That means agencies can’t spend normally on personnel, projects and services.
About 51,000 federal employees live in New York state. Some of those workers would be furloughed, while others would have to work without pay until Congress passes a budget. The scope of sidelined workers is likely to be bigger than in previous federal government shutdowns, said James Parrott, the director of economic and fiscal policy at The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.
“The number of federal workers in New York City who would be affected will be greater this time because some agency budgets had been approved before the last shutdown. None of them are this time,” said Parrott. .
The last time the federal government shut down was in 2018 into 2019, for 35 days — a record.
Overall, the severity of a shutdown depends on how long it lasts. A long shutdown could affect New York City government operations that rely on federal funding to run, but that’s unlikely, budget experts say.
“The city has a good amount of cash, so assuming the duration isn’t exorbitant, the city has the money to keep things going, and in general, history has shown that when there is an eventual budget, all the bills get paid,” said Andrew Rein, president of the Citizens Budget Commission.
How might a shutdown affect New York City?
Food Aid at Risk
While social security checks would still be sent out, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, would not be able to continue past October, according to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“If the shutdown were to extend longer than that, there would be some serious consequences to SNAP,” Vilsack said on Monday.
Over 1.7 million New York City residents rely on SNAP.
“Not only would you see mass starvation, but you would actually see a huge huge huge hit to supermarkets and bodegas and farmers markets in New York because the program is going to spend billions of dollars in New York this year,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, which runs the Hunger National Hotline on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Berg said his organization is waiting to hear whether USDA declares the hotline “essential” during a shutdown. Last time the government shut down, Hunger Free created an alternative hotline for federal employees and subcontractors to direct them to food pantries and soup kitchens.
Melanie Hartzog remembers that uncertainty around food and cash assistance was New York’s biggest concern during the 2018-19 shutdown, when she was the city’s budget director. Now, as president and CEO of The New York Foundling, a child welfare agency, those worries loom large again.
“We run a pop-up food pantry, so of course, we’re thinking about what additional resources could bring to bear there,” Hartzog said. “We have our charter school in the South Bronx, where we service a number of families, including child welfare-involved families, and so we’re trying to make sure that we are anticipating what their needs may be.”
The New York Common Pantry and the Food Bank for New York City are readying themselves to support even more people if the government shuts down. The Food Bank already serves 1.2 million who are food insecure in the five boroughs, according to Vice President of Programs Zac Hall — and some federal workers who suddenly stop getting paychecks may soon join them.
“The shutdown impacts people’s lives and pushes them more closely — in some places, directly — into our already strapped emergency food system,” Hall said. “We’re planning for localized distributions that may help federal employees should they be pushed to needing food assistance.”
The Common Pantry will also streamline the intake process for government workers who need food, said Deputy Executive Director Judy Secon.
Also threatened is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC), used to access healthy groceries, formula and baby food.
While overall, the WIC program would almost immediately stop, according to Secretary Vilsack, New York intends to keep benefits flowing, albeit at a reduced level.
An email sent by the state program Wednesday reads: “WIC-approved stores will continue to accept WIC benefits. WIC participants should be assured that sites will maintain normal schedules, appointments will not be cancelled, and WIC staff are available to assist them.”
But starting in October, the amount of each WIC cash benefit for fresh produce will be reduced by up to $37 for parent participants and $15 for children, according to Danielle DeSouza, a state Health Department spokesperson.
The reduction would take place “regardless of the shutdown, until new federal budget appropriations maintain the higher level of [the benefit] established during the pandemic,” DeSouza said in an email.
School lunches are federally funded, but the city Department of Education does not consider those meals at risk because federal funding is already appropriated for the 2024 fiscal year, according to spokesperson Nathaniel Styer.
Courts for Migrants May Stall
While much of the city’s infrastructure for accommodating the influx of migrants is either funded by or run by the federal government, most systems would continue to function in the event of a shutdown — at least temporarily.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will continue processing asylum applications unabated, according to a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson. Most USCIS staff are paid through fees, not federal spending bills, the spokesperson said.
In recent weeks, city and state officials have put a new emphasis on helping migrants file asylum paperwork to get them on a path to work authorization.
Nonetheless, advocates cautioned that disruptions and delays aren’t entirely off the table, even if much of the USCIS workforce remains working.
“Things were slow at the best of times,” said Beth Thorne, the chief of staff at Project Rousseau, which has been helping migrants fill out asylum applications and other immigration paperwork. “Any government shutdown is only going to hinder what is already a very overburdened situation.”
Local immigration courts were already struggling to accommodate all the people who need to access them for months, and could see further disruptions in the event of a government shutdown. Most Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel are required to work without pay, though immigration court dates could be postponed.
Guidance from the U.S. Justice Department outlines that only court dates for immigrants currently in detention will proceed. During the 2018-2019 federal government shutdown, more than 80,000 immigration court dates were canceled nationwide.
Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, the site of a forthcoming 2,000-person migrant shelter, sits on National Parks Service land, much of which would be closed nationwide in the event of a federal shutdown. But Kayla Mamelak, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams, said they didn’t expect restrictions on city access to the site under an already-secured lease agreement. A White House administration official confirmed a lapse in federal funding does not impact the leased area.
Travel Delays Possible
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey operates the three regional airports, and as a self-funded entity, it could continue running its facilities. Federal workers in the Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection, as well as air traffic controllers, would keep working without pay until the budget bills pass.
But that doesn’t mean your travel plans won’t be upended. During the last government shutdown, many federal employees called out of work, and flights were halted at LaGuardia Airport, which experienced a shortage of air traffic controllers.
That means the impacts on airport workers could “result in delays and severe operating challenges at the airports,” said Port Authority spokesperson Seth Stein.
Some Parks Closed
The Department of the Interior, which is in charge of national monuments and parks, indicated National Park Service sites will shut down if the government does. The gates will be locked and visitor centers closed, though sites that are accessible without gates may still be accessed.
The New York City area has a dozen National Park sites.
Governors Island and its ferries will stay open as scheduled, as it is run by the Trust for Governors Island, but the 22-acre site of the national monument on the island, which includes historic forts, may have limited access.
During the last government shutdown, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo used state dollars to staff the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, which are national monuments under the National Parks Service.