The effects of the ongoing government shutdown could hit the Berkshires' most vulnerable population the hardest.
With the partial federal government shutdown continuing with no end in sight, its potential repercussions on Berkshire County are beginning to loom.
“What our federal government does impacts us very directly. Impacts our ability to provide services for our children," said North Adams Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Malkas. Almost 60 percent of the district’s 1400 students are identified as economically disadvantaged – almost twice the state average of 32 percent.
“We provide a breakfast program for all students," said Malkas. "All students are eligible. We provide a lunch program for all students. All students are eligible. And our separate program is feeding anywhere from on average 85 to 150 students a night. And that’s open to any student who’s a resident of North Adams under the age of 18, irregardless of which school they attend.”
The city doesn’t spend a dime on the program – all of it comes from the federal government.
“It is completely self-supporting through the Community Eligibiltiy Provision funds," said the superintendent. "And so if we were to have to try to use our rainy day funds that are there for emergencies, yes, but that means that they’re also not there to close potential budget gaps as we move into the future.”
As the shutdown continues, Malkas says she’s being forced to consider the future of the program. She got an email from the Massachusetts Office for Food and Nutrition Programs in late December that said Child Nutrition Programs had been funded through January – meaning her programs would be reimbursed through February. Without a fully operating government, any plans to continue feeding the city’s neediest children will have to come from the city – one of the state’s most impoverished.
“We have a plan B that we’re working on, so that if this is a protracted government shutdown we would be able to continue to provide services for our students," Malkas told WAMC. "However, the reality is, that puts a burden on the local taxpayer because any funds that we would now use to support our food service program would have to come through our local funds – which are limited. There’s a reason we receive these subsidies.”
Beyond the food service programs, Malkas says even more issues are on the horizon for the North Adams Public School System if the shutdown continues.
“We fund 32 and a half positions using federal grants,” said Malkas.
Congressman Richard Neal, a Democrat from the first Massachusetts district, issued a statement calling the shutdown “unnecessary and unwise,” blaming President Donald Trump for blocking a recent bipartisan effort to fund the government through February. He went on to say that he is “prepared to end this uncertainty and vote with the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives in January to re-open the federal government at the earliest possible opportunity.”