What's at stake for residents of Benton and Franklin counties in national budget talks is an estimated $1.6 billion in benefits from social programs, according to data from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.
That's how much came into the counties in what is known as "personal transfer receipts" in 2011 -- basically benefits people receive for which they perform no service, so that wouldn't count payment on contracts at Hanford, for example.
What it does include is 17.2 percent of the total $9.65 billion in personal income reported in the two counties last year, and a hit for thousands of local households if benefits from those programs are cut.
"As a senior receiving Social Security and as a food bank director, the entitlement issues are my biggest concern," said John Neill, the volunteer executive director of the Tri-Cities Food Banks.
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"We've got a lot of seniors who come to the food bank who rely on Social Security to survive," Neill told the Herald. "If they get cuts, they're going to run out of their government benefits earlier in the month and they're going to come into the food bank."
That in turn will increase demand on the three food banks Neill oversees, which primarily are run on community donations and volunteer time, he said.
"It's going to impact my clients for sure," he said.
Social Security payments make up the biggest chunk of that $1.6 billion. More than $500 million was paid to residents of the two counties in 2011, with 26.5 percent of Benton County and 21.3 percent of Franklin County households including at least one person collecting the monthly benefits that support retired workers.
Another $321 million was paid out for Medicaid benefits for low-income people, and $294 million for Medicare for seniors, the data showed.
Other payment categories for the two counties included:
w $94 million for unemployment benefits
w $64 million for food stamp programs
w $50 million for education and workforce training
w $39 million in veterans benefits
w $32 million in Supplemental Security Income, a federal program that pays cash to aged, blind and disabled people who have little or no income, and is intended to meet basic needs for food, shelter and clothing, according to the Social Security Administration.
Columbia Basin College President Rich Cummins said cuts to workforce training could be devastating in the long run and widen an already existing "skills gap" in which employers say they can't find workers trained for the jobs companies want to fill.
"For every unemployed worker in Washington, there are two openings in high-skilled jobs," Cummins told the Herald. "That's the last thing we need at this point."
Johan Curtiss, executive director of the Columbia Basin Veterans Coalition, a Pasco nonprofit that helps area veterans apply for benefits among other services, said she's concerned about across-the-board cuts that would be triggered if Congress and President Obama fail to reach a budget deal by the end of the year.
Those cuts could affect critical housing programs for veterans, as well as the stipends that allow veterans to go back to school when they separate from the military to earn degrees or learn new trades, she said.
"We're on pins and needles like the rest of the public is," she said. "We understand we'll just have to make do with what we get."