Over the past two weeks, much media coverage has been devoted to the politicians in Washington, while far less time was spent discussing the ramifications the shutdown had on the lives of furloughed federal workers. The people who work for non-essential segments of the federal government are working to put food on the table and take care of their kids like any other individuals working in the private sector. So while it’s easy to chuckle and point out that life went mostly unchanged in the partial shutdown, there were people immediately affected by it.
In an ideal situation, there would be enough private sector jobs to absorb the number of people employed in the unnecessary parts of federal government. It’s tempting to look at an index of government positions and cross out all of the extraneous agencies and departments. However, while the economy isn’t all bad, it’s pretty plain that there are simply not enough available jobs for this to be feasible.
Furloughed federal workers will receive retroactive pay, but not until the government reopened of course. Until then, there was no paycheck coming in.
This had some Capitol Hill workers fretting over making various payments if the shutdown kept dragging on. It’s likely that many federal workers would have “[fou]nd themselves in a serious financial bind if they miss[ed] two paychecks.” There are those who had retroactive pay coming, but still could not afford to put food on the table, as they were already living paycheck to paycheck.
The Fisher House Foundation stepped in on the federal government’s behalf to make payments to the families of fallen soldiers:
The charity operates 62 residences for injured service members and has served 180,000 military families since 1990. It is now guaranteeing surviving relatives “the full set of benefits they have been promised, including a $100,000 death gratuity payment,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said.
In the meantime, Congress is finalizing an agreement to resume paying survivor benefits, including the $100,000 payment.
The current political climate spurred this very public act of charity, but smaller organizations faced an influx of visitors as well.
A food pantry specifically serving those affected by the shutdown gave out food to 71 different families last week and that’s just in DC. Go out further west and there’s another food bank that services more than 3,000 people who are out of work or directly affected by the shutdown in Arizona. The Grand Canyon National Park was closed and the businesses that rely on the park for patrons are down for the count. Even some religious charities were on uneven footing. For example, Catholic Charities stated that were running into problems funding and supporting their programs that “rely upon federal grants” while running into increased need due to the shutdown.
Behind the administration’s theatrics and the obscuring nature of politics, there are actual people here who are facing hard times. Individuals affected by the economic downturn don’t only work in the private sector. The shutdown made this apparent in a way that couldn’t be seen previously.
Not all was bad news. Some furloughed workers used the time to volunteer. The private sector came in and provided some solutions and funds.
Some would say this is a perfect example of a place where the federal government needs to step out of the private sector. A private charity relying on donations can get a lot of good done. There are a whole host of them. Why is the federal government putting itself into this segment of the economy at all?
And perhaps some would say that in a budget surplus, it’s worthwhile for the federal government to put money towards efficient and effective charitable organizations. I’m sure some would argue it should be done even during a budget deficit.
But wherever that debate may lead – I leave it open to the comments – one must not forget that there are real people who have families depending on them and on that government job paycheck.
Time to exit the field and figure out how to come back strong, taking the current narrative into account. “We tried, we made a valiant effort. It didn’t work out.” And being able to say “we did what needed to do” to get out of the shutdown does not mean giving up those battles forever.
Politics is about winning elections and the shutdown will likely stage a comeback in Democrats’ 2014 campaigns. These glimpses into people’s altered lives will most certainly be featured on some sort of attack ad against the GOP, present and future. Real people were negatively affected by the shutdown — and maybe this time the lurid video will feature a federal employee being thrown from a cliff.
This is how the Democrats will frame those future battles to limit the size and scope of government.
Recognizing how the other side will “frame” the debate doesn’t mean giving up. But it does mean taking the time to remember that real people work for the federal government — or are directly affected by its actions, such as the businesses relying on the Grand Canyon. We can’t forget the human element of the government shutting down.
Armed with this knowledge, it’s time to press forward to ever more challenges ahead.