By: Samantha Bayne
It was a wintry day in Washington. After a long day building snowmen and throwing snowballs, and some hot chocolate at Baked & Wired, Natalie and I chose to take a Lyft back to the Washington Center from Georgetown. After some listening to our light conversation about the different museums that were closed for the shutdown, our driver revealed to us that she was a government contractor furloughed until the government reopened. A cybersecurity analyst, she estimates that 95% of the Department of Homeland Security cannot work. To make ends meet after three weeks with no paycheck, she’s driving for Lyft and hoping for the best.
Our Lyft driver’s story is not unique. We are now on Day 23 of the government shutdown, surpassing the Clinton Administration for the longest shutdown in United States history. Around 800,000 federal workers have gone without pay; paychecks were supposed to arrive on January 11. All these numbers may feel abstract, but the impact on our family, friends, and neighbors is incredibly real. The lasting effects, both micro and macro, of this shutdown cannot be understated, and the instability of this country will only rise as the shutdown continues.
In elementary school, this shutdown may have been just a very long winter break. As adults, though, this shutdown has stark financial implications for those trying to budget for 2019. Not only are 800,000 federal workers not being paid, hundreds of thousands of government contractors and their parent companies are not receiving compensation. Restaurants and shops who rely on federal workers’ business have seen low profits over the past few weeks. When we live in a reality where 63% of Americans do not have $500 in savings to cover an emergency, individual Americans are faced with the possibility of serious financial crises. Evictions, repossessions, and a lack of medical care are all imminent, especially since 4 in 5 workers across the country live paycheck-to-paycheck.
Outside of the individual needs of those relying on federal government paychecks, agency shutdowns are affecting Americans across the country. The most visible effect to many average citizens is the closing of national parks and historic sites, and images with overflowing trashcans have gone viral. The bathrooms are unsanitary, scientific research is delayed, and there’s now an $11 million maintenance backlog, which could take years to complete. Also making headlines are the long lines at many airports. 7.7 percent of the agency’s employees had an unscheduled absence on January 13th, twice the absences last year. The problems of staffing shortages and apathetic agents were only exacerbated by winter weather traveling across the United States. National Weather Service and NOAA employees were also forced to work overtime without pay this past week.
However, many of the most relevant issues are going under the radar as a result of over-saturated news cycles about the shutdown. Routine food inspections have been curtailed, or in some cases, completely stopped. Native American tribes have stopped receiving many basic federal services, such as disaster relief, road maintenance, and law enforcement. Many investigations or security analysis from the SEC, DHS, and more, have either slowed or stopped. SNAP benefits are not guaranteed past February; those needing food stamps are receiving their benefits early, but anyone who filed too late will not receive any stipends. The Environmental Protection Agency has severely reduced environmental inspections and testing. Tax refunds from the IRS may be delayed.
I could list more agencies and more problems and more dangerous consequences, but unfortunately, it doesn’t break through the noise. There is SO MUCH happening in so little time, and there is simply no way to explain all of it. Here’s the simple truth: this shutdown affects Americans in millions of small ways. Its continuation will only continue to hurt the American people. So when the President suggests the shutdown could last “months or even years,” it’s offensive, upsetting, and ignorant of the plight of average Americans.
It’s almost silly to be distracted by things like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s latest controversial tweet or another meme about the American Gothic of Senator Schumer and Speaker Pelosi. It’s also silly to only be thinking about the immigration debate; as Michael Steele, the former chairman of the GOP said, there is no “crisis at the border.” If the shutdown lasts just another two weeks, it will cost the economy more than the initial price of the wall. This “Snurlough” is not just an excuse for bored federal workers to hit strangers in the face with surprisingly hefty snowballs. It’s not just a vacation, as one Trump adviser suggested. The shutdown threatens the livelihood of individuals.
One person that we met said the shutdown is “boring” for his business because it’s the same thing and the same news every day. Sharon Pettypiece, of US News & World Report, argued that the shutdown is “all about 2020.” Sean Spicer, in arguing for the wall, said that we cannot have an economy without the safety of our people. What these sentiments suggest is a disregard for the individual stories of workers affected by the government shutdown. When we forget about the real people who make our country function, we lose our identity as a united society. Let the government open, then have the border security debate. It has waited a full two years. The American people should not have their struggles stemming from their own government. Federal workers would rather see their paychecks than a wall.