As shutdown’s impact grows, pressure rises to end it

Why We Wrote This

Partially closing the federal government is not just about politics. It has a human face, too.

Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP
Emma James (r.) and co-worker Vincent Cuenca demonstrate outside the Federal Center on Goodfellow Boulevard, Jan. 4, 2019, in St. Louis.

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Matthew Charlesworth is normally out in the woods preparing contracts for private timber harvests and other Forest Service operations. But as a “nonessential” federal employee, the Bend, Ore., resident is on furlough and has applied for unemployment insurance. “I've got enough to float the mortgage and a few bills in the bank account,” he says. With the partial federal shutdown now on Day 18, and President Trump preparing a prime-time address to make his case for a US-Mexico border wall, the impacts of the shutdown are spreading. Within weeks, funding could begin to run dry for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), cutting food stamps for some 38 million lower-income Americans. Public-housing programs could have to put upkeep of buildings on hold – or expose tenants to eviction. “Some of the deepest impacts will be on the most vulnerable people,” says Susan Popkin of the Urban Institute. The dent to consumer spending will be especially noticeable in the nation’s capital. “I Metro in, and it’s half empty, and I think ‘Wow, how much money are they losing?’ ” Ms. Popkin says.

With a government shutdown now 18 days old and coming into sharper focus with the end of holiday season, its impacts on Americans are spreading.

An estimated 800,000 federal workers across the nation are on furlough or working without pay, uncertain when they’ll get their next paycheck and sometimes turning to side gigs to cope.

It means that pandas and other animals at the National Zoo in Washington are being fed, but the public isn’t getting to see them. Applications for federally backed mortgages face delays due to untended inboxes. And Forest Service workers like Matthew Charlesworth in Oregon can’t move forward preparing timber-harvesting contracts as usual.

The chaos reflects a political impasse that’s affecting a large chunk of federal activity. Some government operations (including the military) still have funding. And from the Coast Guard and air-traffic control to the FBI and Secret Service, others have many “essential” workers who are being asked to show up without pay.

All this takes a toll on the individuals and the wider economy – and could create political pressure on both major parties to resolve their budget rift.

That’s because the longer the shutdown persists, the more the effects deepen and become visible. Within weeks, funding could begin to run dry for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), cutting food stamps to some 38 million lower-income Americans. Aspiring young companies may have to postpone public-stock offerings. And public-housing programs will see funds dwindle – or in some cases expose tenants to eviction.

“There are wide ripple effects that I think we’re experiencing.... But some of the deepest impacts will be on the most vulnerable people,” says Susan Popkin, an Urban Institute fellow who focuses on housing policy. “The parts of the safety net that seem to be most at risk are SNAP and housing assistance.”

Already, when federal workers themselves are pinching pennies and staying home due to the partial federal shutdown, the ripple effects include a dent in consumer spending. It’s a nationwide phenomenon, but one that’s especially noticeable in the nation’s capital itself.

“I Metro in, and it’s half empty and I think ‘Wow, how much money are they losing?’ ” Ms. Popkin says.

It’s not just Washington

The unfunded agencies, with operations sprinkled across the 50 states, span from the Agriculture Department to airport security and the immigration courts that feature prominently in the stand-off between President Trump and congressional Democrats over immigration policy and border security. Mr. Trump has been insisting on at least $5.7 billion for a wall to help secure the US-Mexico border, and Democrats have stood firm against that idea.

For now, what that means is that Mr. Charlesworth, a single dad, has no income.

A resident of Bend, Ore., he’s normally out in the woods preparing contracts for private timber harvests and other Forest Service operations. But as a “nonessential” Agriculture Department employee, he’s on furlough and has just applied for unemployment insurance to help tide him through however long the shutdown lasts.

“I've got enough to float the mortgage and a few bills in the bank account,” he says, describing how he’s starting to juggle carefully to make sure he prioritizes the right order to pay his bills.

He’s seen a shutdown or two before – typically, once the impasse ends, workers get the paychecks they would have ordinarily received. That in turn gets used to reimburse state jobless-insurance funds that were tapped. There’s no guarantee, however, that the current shutdown will repeat that pattern.

Younger workers hit harder

For now, the immediate pinch of lost paychecks may fall hardest on younger workers with modest pay. That may explain rising reports of airport-security workers calling in sick to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). They’re expected to be at work but have dwindling resources for living and commuting.

“It’s a little stressful,” says one TSA worker at Reagan National Airport in Washington, who has just her own income to support herself and her 5-year-old son, who is now old enough to be in school. “I’m glad I don’t need to worry about day care.”

But even two-income households are affected.

“We do live paycheck to paycheck,” says one National Park Service employee, married to another furloughed federal worker, who asked that their names not be used. “The first few weeks were not as bad because we got one paycheck. But the second the [other] paycheck stopped, that was more stressful.”

The fallout for them extends from grocery shopping to their aspirations to buy a home.

“My husband and I were in the process of buying a house, and we lost the house,” she says. “You can’t close on a house during a shutdown, so another buyer came in and our contract disappeared, basically.”

Their belt-tightening, she adds, now includes putting clothing items up for sale online, and learning “to eat the same meal and stretch it out with rice for a week, and that’s been interesting.”

Some of their friends, who are also furloughed, are filling in the income gap by doing food delivery for UberEats.

Clock is ticking

Perhaps mainly as a negotiating tool, Trump has talked about being willing to let the shutdown go a “long time,” months or longer, if Democrats don’t cut a deal on border-wall funding. Some analysts predict that pressure will mount for officials to end the current shutdown.

“Imagine the optics and the real hardship if members of the United States Coast Guard are not paid for a year,” writes Jeffrey Neal, former chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department, in a commentary published Monday. “Do we really think Americans are going to stand by and watch members of one of our military services living on food stamps and welfare while they are carrying out their mission?”

The list of pressure points from the public also includes things like closure or littering of national parks, and concern about whether Americans will receive tax refunds on time.

Shutdown-related dysfunction adds urgency to bargaining in Washington, and that can serve a purpose – albeit with an air of needless upheaval – when two sides are at loggerheads. It’s happened before.

What’s different this time is the president’s apparent lack of concern about how long the shutdown might run. Such bravado can be a bargaining chip but also risks drawing public blame on himself.

Trump’s stance softening?

Already there are signs of Trump perhaps starting to walk back an air of recklessness.

His administration has pledged that tax refunds will happen on time (without explaining how a partially shuttered Internal Revenue Service will do that).

“I don’t care that most of the workers not getting paid are Democrats,” Trump tweeted on Jan. 5. “I want to stop the Shutdown as soon as we are in agreement on Strong Border Security! I am in the White House ready to go, where are the Dems?”

In remarks to reporters at the White House Monday, Trump said he “can relate” to the pain of federal workers who aren’t getting paid. He added that “many of those people agree 100 percent with what I'm doing.”

Many federal workers, whether in agreement or not, are simply trying to soldier through a difficult situation. Trump will try to use a prime-time televised address tonight to gain additional leverage, casting border security as both an emergency and a mandate from his 2016 election victory.

But time may not be on the side of anyone who pushes a government shutdown much deeper into the new year.

SNAP, also known as food stamps, could face shortfalls in February and be largely tapped out by March without new appropriations for the Agriculture Department.

And housing authorities have already stopped the flow of repair funds for public housing, with deeper potential funding challenges for the Housing Department looming after March, says Popkin at the Urban Institute. Delays in contracts for privately owned low-income housing could cause tenants to be evicted as the landlords seek income for their properties.

"It’s going to leave people in potentially unsafe situations," she says, and even before the shutdown there wasn’t "enough assistance to go around."

Americans step in

Some nonprofit groups and volunteers have stepped up to try to ease the shutdown’s widening effects.

Citizens have arrived with mops and sponges to maintain bathrooms at places like Yellowstone National Park in Montana.

In Washington, experts at American University have been holding seminars to offer career-skill coaching to federal workers while they're furloughed, from “kindness in management” to tips that might help them keep up their spirits and health while sidelined.

“There’s just been an amazing response,” including 550 people signing up for the mentoring, says Vicky Wilkins, dean of the university’s School of Public Affairs.

Many federal workers say they learn to check their own political views at the door amid the political debates swirling around the government.

Paul Bamonte, a branch chief with the Department of Homeland Security who turned out for the university event on Tuesday says: “It’s that idea of, what can I do to get back to work, continue to care for my family, continue to do a wonderful job at work, and serve my country.”

 

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