At an estimated cost of $1.2 Billion per week, the federal government shutdown will have an increasing economic impact as the weeks and months drag on. President Trump has indicated that he will hold the country hostage to get his $5.6 Billion in wall funding for months or even years. In that time frame, the effects would be devastating far beyond economics – impacting health, safety, infrastructure and even the allocation of US House seats to the states (the US Census Bureau will be forced to cease preparations for the 2020 Census within six to eight weeks, which could ultimately affect population counts).
But America doesn’t need to gaze toward the distant horizon to anticipate how the shutdown might impact the country in the future. Ripple effects from the shutdown are being felt across the nation already, as families begin to cope with the economic reality of halted paychecks and limited social safety net services.
Here are five stories from everyday Americans who are coping with anger and uncertainty about their income, employment and the well-being of their families as the shutdown continues. These individuals contacted me voluntarily, and agreed to be interviewed and have their stories shared. Some requested anonymity to protect themselves and their departments from retribution.
Jonathan Davis (pseudonym) – US Forest Service Employee
Jonathan Davis lives and works in the Forest Service’s Region 4, known as the Intermountain Region – which spreads across parts of Nevada, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. He and his wife raise two children and sustain the family on two incomes: his earnings as a forest service employee and hers as a public school teacher.
Because of their dual-income household, Davis said he feels relatively secure that his family will financially survive the shutdown, unless Trump decides that employees won’t receive back-pay for the the hours lost during the shutdown:
“The loss of those wages will be a significant impact to me and my family. We will have to sell a vehicle, cut travel plans, reduce spending, and change retirement plans to make up the difference.”
For Davis, the immediate impact is more psychological – uncertainty around the duration of the shutdown is causing undue anxiety:
“I’ve filed for unemployment insurance for the first time in my life based on Trump’s statements that he would be happy to keep the government shut down for months or years. This uncertainty in the duration of the shutdown makes it nearly impossible for me to find other work during the shutdown. Prospective employers don’t consider me hireable since I would leave them hanging once the government reopens. So, my only alternative there is to resign my position with the government in order to address the issue of my availability to another employer, even if my intent is for temporary employment. The uncertainty leaves me completely between a rock and a hard place: I can’t get a temp job, I can’t earn wages during the shutdown, and unless I’m willing to resign, I just have to sit and wait for the president and congress to get their acts together.”
From his position in the US Forest Service, Davis is very concerned about others he works with, including contractors who do work on behalf of the Forest Service:
“The shutdown has halted contracts nationwide. Contractors are forced to demobilize employees and equipment, and then remobilize the same when the shutdown ends. Depending on the scope and scale of the contract, costs can range as high as several hundred thousand dollars. During the 2013 shutdown, demob/remob costs for contracts I managed cost nearly $500k. Lost time and schedule delays added another $1M in costs. Contractors also face problems due to turnover forced by the shutdown as well as rehiring/training costs for new employees when the shutdown ends.”
But it isn’t just the financial impacts on existing projects, contractors, or families of laid off workers that are problematic. Program management suffers significantly as well in a shutdown, which can have lasting consequences if you assume that the work being done is of import to the public. This is very much the case for Forest Service employees and contractors:
“Related specifically to this shutdown, the timing is effecting forest and wildfire management activities. Fall, winter, and spring seasons offer the best opportunities for fuels reduction operations in national forests. While Trump chastises California for poor forest management practices, the shutdown has effectively curtailed the very important programs designed to reduce wildfire risk by sidelining employees and contractors who do the actual work on the ground.”
In other words, the wildfire season could be more devastating next year because critical work is not being done now. Davis’ sentiment is reflected by Jerry Keir, Executive Director of the Great Basin Institute, who is very concerned about the suspended efforts to address tree mortality in Sierra National Forest. According to Keir, “The shutdown is compromising already tight deadlines to allow that grant and planning work to occur to address issues of catastrophic fires. This includes project implementation to remove 22 million trees and a pressing need to have people on the ground to deal with these fuel issues.”
Jamie Rodny – Federal Investigator, US Dept of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
Jamie Rodny works in HUD’s Los Angeles field office, and spends her days investigating banks, cities and housing providers such as landlords, property management and development companies to ensure that they are not violating the civil rights of home buyers and tenants. She is currently furloughed, which means that this work is not being done – leaving citizens vulnerable to potential discrimination.
Rodny’s personal situation is deeply impacted by the shutdown:
“My husband, three-year-old son, and I are on the road to financial ruin because of this horrible government shutdown. We are a dual income earning middle class American family and we can not afford to “wait as long as it takes,” as President Trump stated, to receive my paychecks. Like the majority of Americans, we live paycheck to paycheck and currently do not have a penny in savings because we just purchased our first home in April when we moved to Orange County from the Bay Area and had to use every cent we had for the down payment. In California, as you know, we must pay an extremely high cost of living for our housing, daycare, taxes, groceries, gas, and also have to manage to pay high law school and undergraduate loans, car payments, insurance, and credit card bills.”
While the shutdown is troubling for Rodny’s family, it is the impact on her work and the people she helps that is most disturbing for her:
“As an Investigator for HUD, I enforce civil rights and equality for all in the Housing and Lending markets with the Fair Housing Act. I investigate banks, cities, and housing providers such as landlords, property management, and development companies to ensure that they are not violating YOUR civil rights. For example, just before the shutdown, I was able to investigate and settle a complaint where a single mother of four children, who is completely disabled due to a horrible disease she acquired later in life, was evicted by her property management company because she asked for repairs to the single family home she had been renting for eight years. After she complained to the managers that the maintenance personnel called her the “N-word,” the owners immediately took steps to evict her. Throughout the course of my investigation, I was able to settle the complaint by having the landlords seal the eviction under Nevada law in order to remove it from her record, contact the credit bureaus to remove the debt they alleged she owed for repairs they were supposed to do to the property, and get her $2,000 dollars which she immediately used towards security deposit and rent in order to get herself and her four children out of homelessness. This woman called me her “angel” because no one else could have moved mountains to get her and her children off the streets like I was able to do.
I settle about 80-90% of the complaints that I investigate and help all Americans regain stability in their housing and a sense of justice and equality. Before the Fair Housing Act was passed by President Johnson, we had extreme segregation, overt racism, and inequality that plagued our nation with riots, protests, and economic stagnation. My fellow investigators and I enforce YOUR civil rights and help make America a nation of tolerance, acceptance, and a place where diversity has long been celebrated.”
Without Investigators like Rodny on the job, Americans’ rights can be more easily violated, and potentially without consequence. In addition to potential civil rights abuses, HUD customers will be catastrophically impacted by the shutdown if it continues much longer:
“If the government is not reopened soon, millions of Americans who rely on HUD’s subsidized housing to pay their rent, including the low-income, elderly, and disabled individuals and veterans who use the bulk of rental assistance from HUD, might end up being evicted and homeless. In February, HUD will not have the funds to pay their portion of the rent for those on Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, public housing rental assistance, disability rental assistance programs, and the veterans rental subsidy program (VASH). How will my 94 year old grandmother be able to pay her landlord the government’s portion of her rent, which is over $2,000 dollars? How will the millions of Americans who rely upon HUD’s rental assistance pay their landlords the government’s portion of the rent?”
Rodny was interviewed by BBC World News on January 8th about the shutdown. You can watch the interview here.
Janet Ford (pseudonym) – SNAP Recipient
Janet Ford and her ex-husband – a 30-year federal worker and current Interior Department employee – have gone to great lengths to ensure that their eldest child succeeds in life. To pay for their daughter’s graduate school program, the former couple agreed to move back in together to save money on rent and other costs. Ford herself receives support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, fka Food Stamps). She is very concerned about the potential loss of SNAP, as the US Department of Agriculture has not guaranteed availability of funding for nutrition assistance beyond February:
“My food stamps will most likely be cut off in February since there’s no standing legislation that funds it and probably no workers to process it anyway. I’m scared. So in a month, we’ll be facing serious concerns about homelessness and hunger. Why? Because we trusted that our government was staffed by responsible adults who understood the consequences of their actions, and would realize that people aren’t pawns. My family’s future, possibly our existence, is dangling on the hope that a bunch of rich people who have no idea what it’s like to live so close to the bone will somehow understand or feel empathy for us. I haven’t seen much of that for awhile. I won’t be holding my breath.”
Ford’s ex-husband’s job at the Interior Department was largely what was sustaining the two.
“He’s been through furloughs before but they were short lived, maybe a week. Longest was I think was two. No one ever said anything about months or years then. Why would anyone work for anyone who tortured their employees like that? How many workers can afford to wait to get their job back? And if they can’t get back to their jobs, how many communities can absorb these numbers of people looking for work and food? Not mine. I can tell you not any rural communities whose lifeblood may depend solely on federal work. Where will we go? There might look like a lot of jobs out there but we’ve established that too many places don’t pay a living wage. That’s just an entire stream of folks hitting the market all at around the same time.”
Aside from their own family’s plight, Ford is concerned by the dismal future for millions of Americans who rely on SNAP if the shutdown continues past the USDA’s ability to cover the cost of the program:
“I’m terrified. Are you kidding? How many food pantries and church charities will we need to feed all these millions of people who won’t have food stamps just out of the blue? This is not how you run a government.”
Grace Billings (pseudonym) – Wife to US Dept of Homeland Security Employee
When the Billings family moved to the DC area for her husband’s job, they were not able to sell their house, so this shutdown hits them as they contend with paying two mortgages. Grace Billings’ husband Roger is deemed “essential personnel” at DHS, so he is currently working without pay. The family can sustain itself for a time:
“We just went through Christmas, but we are fortunate enough we will be okay through the initial missed pay period. [Checks would be going out on January 11th if there were no shutdown.] That will change if the next federal check isn’t paid.”
On top of their tenuous financial situation, the Billings family is under audit by the IRS:
“We are currently being audited for three years by IRS, triggered by our moving expenses. The IRS was supposed to make a decision on two of the three years by 12/31 but that department is closed. The process has been excruciating because the IRS has empty positions they haven’t been able to fill since Trump took office.”
Grace and Roger raise two children, including an autistic son. Billings points out another reason that the timing of the shutdown is unfortunate for the family:
“The new year just started for our health insurance plan, which means we have to pay out-of-pocket until we reach our deductible. It’s a terrible time to have cash flow issues. My son has to have his meds. My husband has to have his blood pressure meds. These things aren’t optional and prescriptions just went up, as did the cost of what we pay for the same plan we had last year. Again – thanks to this Administration.”
Grace and Roger hope that the shutdown ends by the time the second furlough pay period is up. Otherwise, they will have to weigh which payments to make: car, mortgage on house one, and/or mortgage on house two, while cutting back on food consumption and utility usage where possible – and prioritizing purchase of their costly medications.
Charla Jackson (pseudonym) – Spouse of Federal Employee
The Jackson family of Washington state has endured multiple furloughs over the years. Charla’s husband Steve has been a government employee for his entire career.
“2013 was bad for us financially. Really bad. It took us a while to recover. We’re in better shape now because I am working. In anticipation of the shutdown, Christmas was lean and we ended up deciding to not purchase a number of gifts. We actually returned a few bigger ones, including a laptop we need for school. Our old one is a paperweight. It will have to wait – we will rely on cell phones.
The truth is we may not be ok if we’re not paid. We didn’t have a 2nd income in 2013. But today? A new catastrophe – I am sick. I’m the only source of income at the moment. I took on extra pay to keep the lights on through the holidays. This morning I was diagnosed with pneumonia – they wanted to put me in the hospital overnight. I knew I was sick but put off the co-pay and then took on extra work for my family.”
The Jacksons are also concerned for the well-being of others in the federal workforce:
“I will share that we’ve given some of our savings to subordinates who have none so they could get medicines for their kids. One agency- if you call in sick & can’t produce a doctor’s note, you’re fired. People call in sick to work temp jobs in fast food. I don’t think people realize how much a vast majority live paycheck to paycheck in this country.
We’ve seen other shutdowns. We’ve called creditors on behalf of subordinates. Guess what: creditors don’t care. They want their money. Your lights, water, cable will be shut off if you don’t pay & regardless of a note from the Office of Personnel Management.”
Under The Bus
There are some common threads in the stories shared above. Largely they can be summed up in this way:
In pursuit of the ever-elusive American dream, people incur debts. They send their children to school. They owe mortgage payments. They get sick. The common view that government jobs are gravy trains is ludicrous. Civil servants take pride in their work, and many live paycheck to paycheck like so many other Americans. Shutting down the government for an extended period causes undue financial hardship and mental anguish for hundreds of thousands of families.
In addition, despite the narrative commonly espoused by Trump and the GOP, the work done by federal civil servants is noble and has a purpose. It ensures that we are safe. It protects our rights and our lands. It keeps us healthy and fed. When there is a work stoppage, those services and protections stop. The suffering spreads far beyond those immediately impacted by furloughed employment.
It is incumbent upon our elected officials to treat our civil servants and the work that they do with respect.
So Who is to Blame?
When asked who they believe is ultimately causing this misery for their families and who is to blame, interviewees didn’t mince words.
Jackson laid blame directly at the feet of the President and Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell:
“Trump & McConnell don’t care, even if kids die (we’ve seen this at the border) – as long as their political agenda is met. This doesn’t just affect 800,000 – it affects their families. It affects Millions. Even households with 2 incomes. There’s 2 incomes to make ends meet. You don’t get rich working for the US government, unless your last name is Trump. Then you profit off the presidency, unfettered.”
“I am angry because this is just baloney. The GOP had two years in control of the White House and Congress, yet they were unable to get this done. There is no emergency except Ann Coulter is a racist goading him. The rates of illegal immigration are lower now than they have been since the 1970’s. The people coming in illegally are coming by plane, mostly from Asia, and overstaying visas.
Border security is fine. But no wall. Ever. There is no need – and this isn’t the 17th century for goodness sake. Drugs come by drone, by sea and thru legal ports of entry. Not by asylum seekers.”
Another interviewee not featured above, Chantel Gomes, will be losing her house in fairly short order unless the IRS opens back up to process some paperwork necessary for her to avoid foreclosure. She had this to say:
“This is Trump’s fault. He made up this crisis. We need immigration reform but holding the government hostage is not the answer.”
US Forest Service worker Jonathan Davis feels intense anger about the actions of the President:
“I’m angry that a president was placed into office who apparently has no ability to understand how his actions are affecting millions. I’m angry that the president is using his position for personal enrichment. I’m angry that the president is ripping this country in half and encouraging the eruption of racism and violence in our society.”
Davis goes on to take aim at the GOP generally, and suggests that the solution is in their hands:
“I’m angry that the GOP has sat on their hands for the past two years and allowed the president to run amok. I’m angry that no one in the GOP apparently has a backbone to stand up for what’s good and right in this country.
The solution to the problem is for McConnell to call a vote on the 6 funding bills that were unanimously approved by voice vote in the senate before Christmas. McConnell can then send the bills to the president for signature. If Trump refuses to sign, by ⅔ majority, the senate and house can override the President’s veto and reopen the government. Trump will then retain the options of negotiating for the wall by continuing to hold Homeland Security funding as hostage or going the nuclear route and declaring a national emergency.”
Whether the GOP will hear these calls from the federal workforce and do as Davis suggests, remains to be seen. In the words of Janet Ford: I won’t be holding my breath.
For more information about the affects of the shutdown, click here.