Scaffolding covers the Statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol dome in Washington, D.C.
Scaffolding covers the Statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol dome in Washington, D.C., September 2013. (Getty/Anna Moneymaker)
  • Since publication, Congress enacted a continuing resolution funding the government through November 17.

  • Unlike an October 1 shutdown, a midyear shutdown would not immediately jeopardize Head Start facilities.

On October 1, 2023, the United States government will shut down should Congress fail to reach an agreement on funding across its 12 appropriations bills for the new fiscal year. While the White House and Senate are aligned on both short-term and year-long funding levels, the funding bills written by Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee have instead proposed harmful cuts and extreme, unrelated policy riders. Instead of adhering to the budget deal they agreed to a few months ago, House Republican appropriators are pushing for cuts to education, clean drinking water, and nutrition assistance for newborns.

The impact of a federal shutdown varies by agency, program, and how long the shutdown lasts. Nonetheless, numerous essential functions of the government halt immediately.

Here are five immediate effects of a shutdown.

Some preschoolers will have nowhere to go

The Head Start and Early Head Start programs provide low-income families with early childhood care and education alongside wraparound services to support the growth of children from birth to age five and prepare them for success in school. The programs also frees up parents to engage in school, work, job training, or pursuing employment. These programs encourage children’s learning and development through guided activities, lesson plans, and physical activity. Head Start also provides children with nutritious food and promotes health and wellness.

Starting October 1, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will be unable to award new Head Start grants, leaving as many as 10,000 children immediately without Head Start and its associated benefits, with the number growing as the shutdown continues.

Worker safety is endangered

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ensures safe conditions by setting and enforcing standards for safety hazards and health risks for 130 million workers. For example, OSHA standards require that employers prevent worker exposure to harmful chemicals. OSHA conducts inspections of workplaces under its jurisdiction for dangerous conditions, and it reports severe illnesses or injuries on behalf of worker complaints and referrals from other organizations. The agency also targets inspections to high-hazard industries or workplaces with higher levels of injury or illness—and it often conducts follow-up investigations.

On October 1, OSHA will have to limit workplace inspections, leaving workers vulnerable to potential hazards and safety risks.

Public health and environmental safety is undermined

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) cleanup enforcement program protects both the environment and human health by cleaning or enforcing cleanup by the parties responsible for some of the most contaminated areas. The EPA also monitors the treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste to protect groundwater and human health.

As soon as a shutdown is in effect, most of the EPA-led inspections for drinking water facilities will stop, as will oversight and review of plans and permits to ensure clean water and protect communities from health hazards. These disruptions come at a critical time, as the EPA is implementing important new actions and investments to improve drinking water quality. Also delayed or ceased are EPA-led efforts to clean up contaminants, especially those that are associated with severe health risks, such as cancer, and with harm to the human immune system and healthy child development. The presence of contaminants poses a significant and disproportionate threat to low-income households and communities of color.

Some sick children may go without needed health care

The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Clinical Center is a hospital dedicated to clinical research. It takes on sick patients, usually with illnesses that are difficult to treat. This care typically involves new medicine and new treatment, serving roughly 10,000 new patients each year.

NIH’s contingency staffing plan commits only to providing care for “existing patients.” During the 2013 shutdown, NIH said it would only in rare cases accept new patients, leading it to turn away about 200 patients for care each week, including sick children.

Millions of workers go without pay

More than 4 million people are direct employees of the federal government, with more than half of them civilians, and millions more are employed by companies through federal contracts. This includes employees in Social Security offices, scientists, and astronauts who work for NASA, as well as the service contract workers who clean and maintain federal office buildings. With the exception of a very small minority of workers whose funding comes from mandatory funding, the funding to pay federal employees comes through the annual appropriations process.

With the government shut down, most federal employees will not receive pay—regardless of whether they are working or furloughed—for any new work after October 1 or days furloughed during the shutdown. Even though no paychecks have been missed as of yet, as many as 4 million people will be going without pay. And while a 2019 law ensures that direct federal employees will ultimately receive back pay when the shutdown ends regardless of whether they were furloughed, many households cannot afford to miss a paycheck—and workers who contract directly with the federal government enjoy no such protections and are unlikely to be made whole.

See also

How is a shutdown different from a default?

A shutdown occurs when the funding lapses for at least one part of the government. Unless the activity is necessary for the protection of life and property, it ceases. The other activities in the government that are funded continue to operate.

In contrast, if the United States reaches its statutory limit on debt, exhausts its extraordinary measures, and runs down its cash reserves, a default would occur, meaning the government would be unable to spend money to meet its legal obligations. A default would cause the United States to immediately cut back on all spending programs.


While some harms start immediately, the damaging effects of a shutdown grow immensely over time, as contingency funds run out, grants expire, and some states and local governments grow increasingly unable to advance the money to run joint federal-state programs. The U.S. House of Representatives should pass the bipartisan Senate continuing resolution and keep the government running. The government is supposed to work for the American people, and it cannot do so when it’s shuttered.

The authors would like to thank Emily Gee, Jean Ross, Madeline Shepherd, Karla Walter, David Madland, Maureen Coffey, Hailey Gibbs, Marquisha Johns, Jill Rosenthal, Jared Bass, Trevor Higgins, Andrea Ducas, and Lily Roberts for helpful suggestions and Kyle Ross for research assistance.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Bobby Kogan

Senior Director, Federal Budget Policy

Jessica Vela

Research Associate, Inclusive Economy


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