The "non-essential" programs that are currently unfunded due to the shutdown are in fact essential for many women and children.
The GOP likes to say the war on women is a myth. But the government shutdown, now in its eleventh day, is just the latest evidence that it is indeed alive and well. It should be no surprise that women are among those hurt most by the closure, which, predictably, is in part a reaction to the benefits that the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature achievement, guarantees women, as we wrote last week.
From the nation’s elite institutions to the oft-neglected rural areas of this country, women and their families are caught in the middle of a political impasse that has furloughed an estimated 800,000 government workers, threatens to upend the global economy, and has left critical government programs and services scrambling to secure emergency funds in order to serve America’s most vulnerable populations.
The shutdown threatens a number of programs and funding streams, including domestic violence shelters and service centers; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); the Woman, Infants, and Children Program (WIC); School Lunch; Head Start; and Title IX investigations of sexual assault on college campuses. This will have a serious impact on the health, physical safety, food security, and economic stability of women and their families.
As Bryce Covert wrote last week, funds for domestic violence programs designated under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) have been suspended since October 4. (It should be no surprise that many of the House members leading the shutdown also voted against VAWA itself earlier this year.)
Small centers without access to independent funding – those that serve women with the fewest options – will only be able to weather the storm for so long. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing economic downturn, violence against women has been on the rise, with eight out of 10 shelters reporting increases in the number of women seeking help, and 74 percent of domestic violence victims staying in unsafe situations because of economic insecurity. Demand for these services is increasing, while funding is being cut from every source. Nearly four out of five of domestic violence service providers have reported decreases in government funding over the past five years, and since October 1, many have closed their doors completely or limited their services.
The shutdown is also affecting the safety of women on college and university campuses across the country. An increasing number of institutions are under investigation for ineffective handling of sexual assault cases adjudicated under Title IX.
And with the shutdown, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has suspended investigations into alleged violations and has halted campus visits necessary for holding institutions accountable.
The shutdown threatens the food assistance on which millions of America’s most vulnerable women and children rely. At this point, federal funding for TANF, WIC, and school lunches has been suspended. State and USDA reserve funds are being reallocated so that states can continue to provide these essential services, but they will only be able to function with these limited resources for a short time.
States are shouldering the burden to keep TANF running while the government is shuttered, but last week, 5,200 eligible families in Arizona did not receive their monthly check. Thus far Arizona has been the only state to deny this important benefit for families in need, but every day the program is more strained.
WIC, the federal program that most crucially provides formula and breastfeeding assistance for mothers in need, has also been left in the lurch. On Tuesday, officials announced that no additional WIC vouchers would be issued in the state of North Carolina, where approximately 264,000 women rely on the program. In Utah, the WIC program shut its doors and only reopened four days later because the USDA provided a $2.5 million emergency grant. Other centers are sure to face the same challenges so long as workers are furloughed and grants are on hold.
Head Start programs that provide childcare and education for 7,200 low-income children ages 0-5 did not receive grants due on October 1. Thousands of low-income women are able to go to work every day because their children participate in Head Start programs. Without them, women already struggling in low-wage jobs and lacking benefits are forced to miss work, because no one else is able to care for their children. For women, secure employment is contingent on secure childcare and education for their families. The New York Times reported that programs in six states had closed due to the shutdown and then reopened temporarily thanks to a $10 million gift from a couple in Texas. Head Start will continue as a result of this short-term rescue, but private philanthropy will not be able to do the job of the government over the long term.
In sum, what some define as non-essential government services are, in fact, essential to the economic and physical well-being of America's most vulnerable women and their families. It’s just another variation on the old adage that one man’s public interest may be another’s tyranny – in this instance, largely tyranny over women and children.
Nataya Friedan is a recent graduate of Columbia University working for the Roosevelt Institute’s Women Rising program.