In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Associate Professor of Communications Amanda Sturgill offers a look at the extensive ripples the recent federal government shutdown had within the broader population. The column was published in The News & Record of Greensboro.
By Amanda Sturgill
Two weeks ago, I received appeals from a local food closet that serves schoolchildren and a local diaper bank, with both seeking assistance because of unforeseen need.
What was driving that need? The shutdown of the federal government. Even though the politicians eventually agreed on a plan to reopen the government after 35 days, the events of the past month are a reminder of how many people’s lives are touched by the federal government.
I don’t live in Washington, D.C. I live in the Triangle region of North Carolina, which isn’t known for its huge federal workforce. But these appeals from local charities hammer home just how far the effects of the government shutdown were felt, and by how many people.
After the government shut down in December, we heard a lot about spats between members of Congress, “Where’s Mitch,” and where and when the State of the Union might be delivered. This type of conflict has great news value, but it’s also valuable to understanding the true effect of the shutdown in our own communities.
Federal employees are just some of the strands in a web of people who are affected when the government stops paying its workers and its bills. There were stories here and there about federal employees standing in line for free food or worrying about upcoming bills, accompanied by heart-tugging photos and videos of food lines or workers worried about losing their homes.
However, I saw almost no coverage of the ripple effects the shutdown had on so many people who don’t receive a paycheck straight from the federal government. Government contractors, suppliers and people who already depend on charities suffered, too, and for some, it’s going to be a lot harder for them to recover from the government closure.
When the government didn’t send out paychecks to some of its workers for a month, it also did not pay some of its contracts with private businesses. This is a big deal — a 2017 report by the Volcker Alliance, “The True Size of Government,” says that for every federal employee, there are more than two workers paid by contracted businesses or grants. If a private business isn’t making money, there’s no money to pay those workers.
Government employees will be paid for the time the government was shut down. People who work for contractors may never make up that lost salary. Losing a month of pay is a big deal for any family.
On top of that, special loan programs, food banks, free admissions and other kind gestures to ease the burden for federal employees generally didn’t apply to people who don’t have federal identification cards.
Federal programs affect private businesses in ways great and small. Government employees I’ve talked to for my research have talked about not wanting to drive places so they didn’t have to spend money on gas and about how restaurants in northern Virginia and Maryland had a dramatic drop in the number of patrons. Wait staff, cooks and gas station attendants don’t work for the government but still saw their incomes suffer.
The ripple touches lots of jobs. When employees have to work and don’t get paid, they still need daycare but have no salaries to pay for it. When the grocery store loses business, its employees may lose hours. What happens to the daycare workers? To the grocery workers?
In time of crisis such as this, unpaid government workers, contractors and others turned to existing charities in communities all over the country, causing an immense strain like I’ve seen in my own community, where Girl Scouts are planning an extra food drive for a suddenly depleted school system’s suddenly depleted food closet, and the local diaper bank needs donations for an emergency distribution of diapers, wipes and formula. These extra needs are both urgent and unexpected. When charities face sudden increased need, is there enough left for their existing clients? We don’t know, but we should.
Politics caused the shutdown, and it’s important to follow the news stories about the political struggle. But the people matter, too, and the struggle so many are facing is likely much closer to you than you think.