Editor’s Note: Rachel Black is director of the Family-Centered Social Policy program at New America. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN. This article has been updated to reflect the latest news.
Eight hundred thousand federal workers will miss their second paycheck on Friday if there is no resolution to the impasse between Democratic leadership and President Donald Trump over his demand for funding to construct a wall at the nation’s southern border. How long they will remain in this state of limbo remains unclear, though, the President has speculated the shutdown could last for “months, or even years.”
Although Trump signed a bill that guarantees back pay to furloughed workers and those who are continuing to work without pay once the government reopens, the human cost on members of his workforce during these negotiations seems to be acceptable collateral damage.
Here is how Lara Trump, the President’s daughter-in-law, put it on Bold TV this week: “It is a little bit of pain, but it’s going to be for the future of our country and their children and their grandchildren, and generations after them will thank them for their sacrifice right now.” Lara Trump, who is married to Eric Trump and is a senior adviser on the President’s re-election campaign, added: “The President is doing everything he can to resolve this quickly.”
Trump has previously framed the shutdown in a similar way, telling reporters it is for “a higher purpose than next week’s pay” and he expects that those who are furloughed will “make adjustments.” Kevin Hassett, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, also blithely implied that furloughed workers would be better off since they wouldn’t need to burn vacation days over the holidays. And, in a sample letter since deleted (presumably due to the intense criticism that followed), the Office of Personnel Management suggested furloughed workers defray their rent by bartering with their landlords.
Despite Trump’s unbelievable claim that impacted federal employees stand united behind his position and that he can relate to their plight, stories are already mounting of households from across the country that are already struggling to make ends meet.
David Kirsh in Atlanta worries he’ll have to leave his job maintaining air traffic control equipment and possibly sell his house. Jo Ann Goodlow, who works for the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona, is buying her son Orajel for his splitting gums because she can’t afford the oral surgery he needs while she’s without a paycheck. In Baltimore, Julia Young, whose husband works as a Coast Guardsman, has withdrawn money from their 401(k) retirement plan and is considering taking their 4-year-old out of daycare to curb expenses.
As the experiences of federal workers caught up in the political theatrics are playing out on the national stage, they are bringing visibility to the kinds of tradeoffs felt daily among millions of other workers already living paycheck to paycheck or without a paycheck at all.
While it’s the President’s political choices that have exposed these federal workers to exceptional financial risk, it’s his policy agenda that has left all of us with little buffer.
In today’s labor market, low, volatile wages are commonplace, especially for women and people of color. According to a 2015 report by the Center for Popular Democracy, 68% of black women and 72% of Latina women work in hourly positions, which are most prone to volatility, compared to 58% of white women. Overall, 61% of all women in the US workforce have jobs that pay by the hour, including 83% of those who work part time; most of these jobs pay less than $15/hour, and part-time jobs rarely provide any benefits.
Just as the Young family tapped into their retirement account to help smooth over their loss of income, savings are frequently the first line of defense against hardship when a household’s budget is out of balance.
Yet, according to recent research from the Federal Reserve, 40% of households couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency – an amount well below the conventional recommendation to have enough cash on hand to cover three to six months of living expenses.
These narrow margins mean that families are at constant risk of even minor changes in their income or expenses inflicting deep material and financial consequences. Researchers have coined the term “heat or eat,” for example, for the tension created in the winter months by increasing utility costs against the relative flexibility of a household’s food budget, which can result in increased hunger and lack of adequate nutrition.
Moreover, when families can’t cut back on costs, they take on debt, which can make rebounding harder in the long run. Surveys of middle- and low-income households show higher uses of credit cards to cover basic living expenses, such as rent or utilities, than their higher-income counterparts, and carry a balance that accrues interest, adding to their financial burden.
Though conservatives traditionally embrace savings as a product of thrift and self-reliance, the President and congressional Republicans have made common cause of widening the hole that working-class families have in their pockets – while concentrating the flow of federal resources that help families build savings and wealth into the hands of those who already have it.
Gone, for example, is the so-called “Fiduciary Rule” requiring that financial advisers offer conflict-free advice that is in their clients’ best financial interest and not for their own financial gain. According to the Obama administration’s Council of Economic Advisers, approximately $17 billion was being siphoned from families by their financial advisers each year. The rule aimed to target the loss. And, hamstrung and under constant assault is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has worked to return nearly $12 billion to consumers from predatory actions by the financial industry.
Meanwhile, the $1.5 trillion tax reform package passed at the end of 2017 made clear the GOP’s priority for subsidizing existing wealth over helping financially fragile families gain a foothold.
Analysis from Prosperity Now shows that the richest .1% of taxpayers stand to gain nearly $200,000 annually, primarily through preferential treatment of investment income, compared to less than $1,000 for middle-income households.
Distilling the view that this disparity is driven by differences in individual character rather than outcomes created by public policy, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) weighed in on a proposal to repeal the estate tax during the debate by telling the Des Moines Register in 2017: “I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”
Though he later said that his quote was taken out of context, the sentiment it reflected was codified into law. The final bill doubled by the value of exemption for individuals with estates valued over $11 million (or, $22 million per couple), impacting only the wealthiest .2% of estates.
This statement and attendant policies, and cavalier actions of the President during the shutdown, reflect a clear disconnect between the prevailing political priorities of the Republican Party and the lived experiences of millions of Americans.
Even after the affected federal workers are paid retroactively, the pervasive financial struggles of workers living paycheck to paycheck will persist. Rather than be seen as distinct, it should now be clear that the financial insecurity exposed in both are the result of political – not personal – choices.
By building a policy agenda that centers on these experiences, instead of disregarding them, all struggling families will be better able to “make adjustments” to financial changes in their lives.