The battle over raising the debt ceiling may seem like political gamesmanship on Capitol Hill, but it has real-life implications for tens of millions of Americans.
Social Security payments could be delayed. The next monthly child tax credit installment might not be sent on time. Food stamp recipients could be left waiting for funds.
That’s because unless Congress suspends or raises the debt limit in coming weeks, the federal government will no longer be able to borrow to pay for its operations, forcing it to limit its spending.
“In a matter of days, millions of Americans could be strapped for cash,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. “We could see indefinite delays in critical payments. Nearly 50 million seniors could stop receiving Social Security checks for a time. Troops could go unpaid. Millions of families who rely on the monthly child tax credit could see delays.”
Though officials have warned for months about the need to address the debt ceiling, Congress has been at an impasse. The House has passed legislation along party lines to suspend the nation’s borrowing limit and prevent a government shutdown at the end of the month, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans have said they will not support it.
A default and extended impasse would have major implications for the national economy, with federal spending cuts potentially triggering a downturn comparable to the Great Recession, according to Moody’s Analytics. Nearly 6 million jobs could be lost, stock prices could drop by one-third and about $15 trillion in household wealth could evaporate
Just what it would mean for Americans remains uncertain since Congress has always stepped in to raise, extend or revise the definition of the debt limit in the past.
These benefits might be affected
The Treasury Department could still pay some of its bills since it would still have tax revenue coming in, but it’s not known what it would decide to pay and when, experts said.
“Just about everyone is likely to be affected in some way or another,” said Paul Van de Water, senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Among them would be Social Security beneficiaries, who would be at risk for not receiving their payments for the first time since the program was created in 1935, said Max Richtman, CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. They are scheduled to receive $90 billion in payments in October.
Some 40% of beneficiaries depend on the monthly checks for at least 90% of their income, and two-thirds of recipients depend on the infusions for at least half of their income, he said.
“Not having a check for a few weeks or a month is devastating,” Richtman said. “Beneficiaries are going to have to decide: Do I pay my rent? Do I buy food? Do I buy my medicine?”
The roughly 35 million parents who are set to receive three more monthly installments of the enhanced child tax credit this year may also have to wait for the funds if there is a default.
The Internal Revenue Service is scheduled to send approximately $15 billion in payments on the 15th of each month, and many families are depending on the money to buy food and necessary items for their children. Parents receive up to $300 for each child up to age 6 and up to $250 for each one ages 6 to 17.
Meanwhile, more than 42.3 million Americans who receive food stamps could be left waiting for their monthly benefits — an average of $227 per person.
What the White House says
The White House last week laid out the consequences of a default, listing six key areas where federal funding to state and local governments could be delayed.
- Tens of billions of dollars in annual disaster relief assistance to states and localities dealing with wildfires, floods and other natural catastrophes.
- More than half a trillion dollars for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which cover 1 in 5 Americans.
- More than $30 billion for nutrition assistance for children’s school meals, which serve 30 million kids, as well as the Women’s Infants and Children (WIC) program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as food stamps are formally known.
- About $100 billion in infrastructure funds for transit, highway and airport projects.
- More than $50 billion in education money for Head Start, special education and other school programs.
- More than $10 billion for public health programs.
Other Americans could also be affected, Van de Water said. Military service members might not receive their paychecks on time, and about 6 million veterans and their survivors could see their benefits paused.
“Virtually every payment could face some sort of delay or reduction,” he said.
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