For an in-depth overview of the individuals, families, and grants affected by the shutdown, see Table 1 at the end of this column.
President Donald Trump recently claimed that he can relate to the strain experienced by federal workers living paycheck-to-paycheck. However, his efforts to prolong the current government shutdown—already the longest in U.S. history—suggest otherwise. In addition to furloughed federal workers, this cruel, manufactured crisis has added immeasurable uncertainty to already stressed low-wage workers and families, disproportionately harming low-income families with children, people with disabilities, and seniors.
Here are just five of the myriad ways that Trump’s shutdown is irresponsibly harming and holding low-income communities hostage.
1. The paychecks of federal workers, contractors, and support staff are being withheld
An estimated 800,000 federal employees—and hundreds of thousands more federal contractors and support staff—have missed paychecks since the shutdown began on December 22. Initially, more than 420,000 employees were required to work without pay while another 380,000 had been sent home without pay. But now, nearly 50,000 of the latter group have been pulled back to work without pay at the president’s command. Federal government workers’ salaries run the gamut, with some making as little as $26,000 a year. The Center for American Progress has estimated that these employees, in aggregate, miss out on more than $2 billion per pay period. With President Trump and congressional Republicans still refusing to fund the government and the shutdown continuing for nearly four weeks, workers’ income shortfall continues to grow. While both houses of Congress have approved legislation that guarantees back pay to furloughed federal workers once the government reopens, the lapse in pay exacerbates financial hardship and uncertainty for many American families. Affected families are struggling to pay rent, dipping into savings, and cutting back on food.
Several nonprofit and charitable organizations are assisting affected federal workers. For example, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association has offered a limited pool of resources for cash-strapped U.S. Department of Homeland Security workers. The Navy Federal Credit Union has also offered no-interest loans to some members who may miss paychecks. At a time when 4 in 10 adults can’t afford a $400 emergency expense, these types of efforts can help meet important liquidity needs for families too financially burdened to pay their bills. But these efforts are insufficient to forestall the short-term harms that have long-term ripple effects, such as missed loan payments and damaged credit scores.
However, financial strain is even more acute for the employees of federal contractors who are not guaranteed back pay. They include administrative professionals, clerks, security guards, carpenters, electricians, cafeteria workers, and janitors. The exact number of government contractors is not known, but some estimates suggest contractors may comprise an even larger portion of the federal government than currently furloughed federal workers. While they have received less attention than people directly employed by the federal government, they are among the communities who will be the hardest hit.
2. Food assistance for millions of low-income children, seniors, and people with disabilities is in jeopardy
The lapse in funding for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs means that millions of families are facing uncertainty in meeting their nutritional needs. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation’s largest anti-hunger program, reaches roughly 40 million low-income individuals—about two-thirds of whom are children, seniors, or people with disabilities—and protected 3.4 million people from poverty in 2017. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) serves about 7 million pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and children until age 5 and protected 279,000 people from poverty in 2017.
While SNAP benefits have been guaranteed through the end of February—and WIC benefits through mid-February—millions could face substantial cuts after that if the shutdown persists. Despite recent assurances that these benefits will be paid out through the end of February, for the past three weeks, many workers and their families have lived with the stress of not knowing how long they’ll be able to keep food on the table.
Even children’s school meals are at risk. Millions of low-income children’s school meals could be affected via the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which provides about 30 million children with free or reduced-price meals. Moreover, the Children and Adult Food Care Program (CAFCP)—a program that provides food to more than 4.2 million children and 130,000 adults in child care centers, family child care homes, Head Start programs, and emergency shelters—could also face funding cuts. The USDA has ensured that these programs will be funded through the end of February, but if the shutdown continues, programs may not receive funds in a timely manner—or at all.
3. The security and affordability of homes is now further destabilized
With the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) shuttered, federal rental assistance programs that provide supportive and safe housing for more than 5 million low-income households—nearly 90 percent of which contain seniors, families with children, or people with disabilities—are at risk of major funding lapses.
In December, 650 Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance contracts expired, causing roughly 21,500 low-income households—including households comprised entirely of low-income seniors in the Section 202 program—to pay more in rent or go without supportive services or building rehabilitation. Adding to this uncertainty, 1,050 more of these contracts will expire during January and February if HUD remains closed.
If the shutdown continues into March, households renting homes with Housing Choice Vouchers could face eviction due to unpaid rent. Public housing authorities also cannot access public housing capital funds or operating funds, which means more than 2 million public housing residents may have to go without critical home maintenance and repairs.
In rural areas, the shutdown is jeopardizing rent payments for more than 250,000 low-income renter households, largely comprised of seniors and people with disabilities. It has also stalled utility assistance and maintenance for low- and moderate-income homeowners and has halted affordable rental home construction.
4. The risk of preventable deaths caused by reductions in local services and supports is increasing
The uncertainty caused by Trump’s manufactured crisis is taking a reverberating toll on entire communities. Local economies are now struggling under the continued absence of federal workers and the business they generate in town. Smaller, lower-income, and more geographically isolated communities—many of which already must contend with inadequate resources and services—are bearing the brunt of the massive federal employee furloughs and funding suspensions. Tribal communities have been some of the hardest hit because—due to long-standing treaty agreements—federal services and jobs make up a significant share of the financial and programmatic support that sustain local health care, housing, education, child care, and economic development services. For example, roughly 60 percent of Indian Health Service employees are working despite not receiving their paychecks.
Trump’s shutdown is also negatively affecting the nation’s struggling infrastructure, exacerbating the already dire state of the country’s roads, energy and water systems, parks, and public transportation. The shutdown is also affecting the built environments of many communities, particularly those located in geographically isolated areas. The U.S. Department of Transportation is one of the federal agencies the shutdown most directly affects. States and localities that rely most heavily on federal grants to cover their operational costs will be especially vulnerable if the shutdown continues. States and localities scrambling to stretch existing funds and manage program budget shortfalls could soon, if not already, experience disruptions in—if not all-out suspension of—services. Such disruptions would severely hurt certain communities, such as people with disabilities who may rely on local paratransit services. The difficulty is compounded for people with chronic illnesses. Now, they must not only worry about whether they can afford costly medical expenses but also whether they can get timely access to vital medication and other essential medical care. Already, the reported victims of this manufactured crisis have been residents vulnerable to significant delay or disruption in services. For instance, an elderly member of the Mescalero Apache Tribe in New Mexico passed away before local emergency medical services (EMS)—whose staffing levels were greatly reduced as a result of the shutdown—could conduct a wellness check during an intense winter storm.
5. Public safety is increasingly threatened
Trump’s shutdown is also forcing communities to contend with heightened threats to public safety. Another key role that now-furloughed federal employees and funding play is in the administration of violence prevention and intervention services. As the shutdown persists, a number of domestic violence programs are preparing to curtail services as funding dries up. On a single day, over 70,000 survivors access lifesaving services from domestic violence programs across the country. A significant portion of domestic violence and sexual assault programs heavily rely on federal funds granted through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and Victims of Crime Act (VOCA). The Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) and the Office on Victims of Crime (OVC) at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) administers these funds to provide access to safety and justice. Domestic violence programs also rely on funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While HUD continues to distribute funds, some organizations report that they have not been able to access funds during the shutdown. Without such funds, survivor housing could be in jeopardy. These resources are particularly important for Americans with disabilities. A recent NPR investigative report found that people with intellectual disabilities are seven times more likely to experience sexual assault than people without disabilities. Women of color are disproportionately affected: According to the DOJ, “More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime.” This includes sexual violence, stalking, and physical or psychological aggression by an intimate partner. Women who are LGBTQ, black, Latinx, and low-income also experience disproportionately high rates of sexual violence. Against this backdrop, the partial shutdown of the DOJ—and, with it, vital funding and programs—is serious cause for alarm, as it will exacerbate an already massive crisis.
President Trump’s shutdown is more than a debate around a wall: It is about the low-income, disabled, and indigenous peoples at and within our borders whose lives and economic security he is endangering for political gain. Callously, the Trump administration has demonstrated that they will only reverse harmful policies when publicly shamed into action. The longer this shutdown persists, the more low-income families’ wages, nutrition, health, housing, mobility, and safety will needlessly hang in the balance. Regardless, the completely preventable harm, uncertainty, and erosion of trust in government already caused by the Trump shutdown is indisputable and will take years to repair—if these damages can be fixed at all.
Donovan Hicks is a research associate for the Poverty to Prosperity Program. Heidi Schultheis is a policy analyst for the Poverty to Prosperity Program. Rejane Frederick is an associate director for the Poverty to Prosperity Program. Azza Altiraifi is a research associate for the Disability Justice Initiative. Rachel West is director of research for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.