10/22/2013 02:01 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2013

Shutting Down Families in Need

Let's take a moment to breathe a collective sigh of relief. After 16 days spent bickering over the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Congress finally reached a truce and the law, which mandates that all Americans must have access to affordable care, remains intact. And while the government is resuming full operation this week, those in poverty are still left reeling. For them the shutdown wasn't merely an inconvenience, it was a threat to their stability.

The current agreement funds the government through January 15, with the debt ceiling raised only enough to last through February 7. So while the government's doors have been reopened, the problem hasn't been solved, we've just kicked the can down the road. In 2011 we had a similar conflict. Congress couldn't agree on how to raise the debt ceiling, squabbling while shutdown loomed and putting funding for emergency support programs for those in poverty on the line. Fortunately, a deal was struck just hours before the government was set to close and those programs continued unabated, but to say it was a close call is an understatement.

This time, the arguments centered on implementation of the ACA, but there was no last minute deal. The government shut its doors for the first time since 1985 and the programs families rely on to meet their basic human needs hung precariously in the balance. WIC, a feeding program for women and children, stopped accepting applications, meaning weeks of extra lag time for those already unable to afford to feed their families. Disability benefit applications were affected in much the same way. TANF, a program that provides emergency cash to those in poverty, was on the edge as well. By many estimates, states would run out of money to fund this program -- as well as programs providing energy assistance, free lunch, and pre-kindergarten education -- in November without federal funding.

For the people these programs serve, what had once been a lifeline became instead a ticking time bomb. In just two weeks November will be here, and with it funding for the programs they rely on to feed and house their family would have disappeared. Imagine your family in a similar situation, knowing that in two short weeks the support you rely on to help you pay for rent, electricity or food could vanish. Without the resources to stay afloat, families in poverty had few options but to watch and hope that Congress would remember that as they hammered out a deal, their families hung in the balance.

In the new year, Congress will once again be forced to deal with these same issues. And as we anticipate these conversations, I and many of my colleagues wonder -- can we count on them to keep families in poverty from falling into hunger, homelessness, and danger in the middle of winter? Or will this partisan bickering continue at the expense of those in poverty?

At Heartland Alliance, the leading antipoverty organization in the Midwest, where I work, we are faced with the reality of poverty on a daily basis. Millions of families rely on the support that government benefits provide and when these programs unexpectedly and indeterminately shut down, they need somewhere they can turn. For more than 125 years we have been happy to serve these families, but it's patently unfair and unacceptable for the government to deny the needs of its most vulnerable citizens.

On its face, poverty seems like a simple concept -- the lack of enough money to make ends meet. But at Heartland Alliance, we know that it's not that simple. Housing, healthcare, jobs, and justice are the way out of poverty and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. With a place to call home, good health, and job preparation, families can and do escape poverty. In the interim though, programs like WIC and TANF, as well as disability payments, can be the difference between terrible crisis and simple stability. We're proud of the work we do at Heartland Alliance -- the work of helping those in poverty to become safe, stable, and healthy - but we can't do it alone. Government has a role to play in helping people escape poverty and emergency programs are too crucial to put at risk. In January, let's hope they remember to fulfill it.