PASSAIC – The food stamp appropriation for February has been made, but then what?


“There’s an uncertainty what March will bring,” observed Salim Patel, who is both a city councilman and president of Smile For Charity, a non-profit, social service agency that, among other things, tries to ensure people in this economically depressed city are well fed.


That can be a chore in normal times, but the ongoing shutdown of the federal government quickly can turn a challenge into a crisis. And that’s what brought Patel, Freeholder John Bartlett, state Assemblymen Gary Schaer and Clinton Calabrese, and most especially, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, to the non-profit’s Hoover Avenue headquarters Tuesday.


Menendez made three essential points – two were planned and one was certainly unplanned. But more about that third topic later.


The senator stressed that as the shutdown, which is now about a month in duration, continues more people will be hurt. He said many of New Jersey’s estimated 730,000 food stamp recipients (the program officially is known as SNAP for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) have jobs and families, but still have trouble making ends meet.


“Families who participate in SNAP are far from living large,” he said.  It has been customary over the years for some on the right to denounce the food stamp program as catering to those who do not really need it. Some old time political observers may recall that Ronald Reagan would make cracks about people arriving at supermarkets in fancy cars to use food stamps. That was fantasy, but Menendez still tried to debunk the notion.


But more than establishing need, the day was dedicated to attacking President Trump. Menendez said his message to the president was, “Open the government, end the shutdown, and stop hurting the American people.”


Menendez reminded the audience that the Senate passed a bill in December to fund the government without spending $5.7 billion on a proposed border wall and Trump seemed prepared to sign it. The president changed his mind when his intentions were condemned by those on the far right.


Menendez, not surprisingly, said he didn’t think a bill Senate Republicans plan to introduce this week will go anywhere. That bill, which is based on comments Trump made last Saturday, would open the government, fund the wall and give protection to children brought here illegally by their parents. These are the “DACA kids.”


Reiterating what has been the Democrats’ position, Menendez said there is no reason to partially close the government because of a dispute over the wall. And he wondered a bit mischievously why funding for the wall is even an issue, given the fact Trump said repeatedly in the 2016 campaign that Mexico would pay for it.


It was Assemblyman Schaer, however, who had the best rhetorical line of the day when he said of Trump’s refusal to budge, “I don’t know if he has a heart. I’m praying that he has a mind.”


Then it was back to reality when Menendez was asked why he – and other lawmakers, but not all – were still taking their pay amid the shutdown.


This was not part of the script, but the senator had a quick retort. He said that this being a “partial” shutdown, the entire government is not closed and that many federal workers are getting paid, not merely members of Congress. He also said that he and other Dems have voted to keep the government open, so the shutdown is not their fault. Referring to lawmakers who are not taking their pay, a follow-up question asked if there was meaningful “symbolism” in doing that.


Menendez dryly replied that those “symbolic gestures” have not helped.