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This is what it feels like to work without pay because of Donald Trump's US government shutdown

The shutdown risks bringing down an entire section of the economy with it, and ordinary people are being affected in the process

Daniel Neep
in Washington DC
Thursday 10 January 2019 09:53 GMT
Donald Trump says workers not getting paid because of government shutdown will have to 'make adjustments'

I encountered my first government shutdown after moving to America in 2013. As a Brit, I didn’t entirely understand what “shutdown” meant. Surely it was impossible for the civil service to just stop working?

At the time, I classified the shutdown over healthcare reform as one of the minor annoyances of American life, alongside needing ID to buy alcohol and calculating an appropriate tip.

This time it’s different. As I’m an academic, not a federal employee, it simply hadn’t occurred to me that I’d be affected. But half of my salary currently comes from a federal research agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). On New Year’s Day, I noticed that I hadn’t received my full pay cheque. Rather belatedly, it dawned on me that the NEH had also suspended operations and put its staff on indefinite unpaid leave. Like many other people beyond the government, I was feeling the effects of the shutdown.

To be fair, I wasn’t alone in my surprise at being affected: the Trump administration itself has admitted failing to anticipate the full consequences of shutting down the government. But it’s hard not to be shocked by the scale of the closure.

US Democrat senators Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer speak following Donald Trump's government shutdown address

Some 800,000 federal workers will miss their pay days, as well as more than 4 million government subcontractors in the private sector. As many as 38 million Americans receive benefits as food stamps (rather than being entrusted with cash), but the programme now might not have the funds to continue after February.

Airport security officers have been instructed to report to duty with the promise of back pay, but hundreds have called in sick while looking for casual work to pay today’s bills. Furloughed workers choose between paying for food, rent or cancer drugs.

The colossal Internal Revenue Service has ground to a halt, right before the first tax returns of the year are due. Three weeks of rubbish is piling up in national parks from Washington DC’s National Mall to Yosemite – and don’t even think about using a public toilet there right now.

Why was the Trump administration surprised that a government shutdown would have such far-reaching effects? It could just be incompetence, but I suspect that the distinctive political culture of the US also contributes. In the UK, we encounter public services quite regularly in our everyday lives: the BBC and NHS are the most obvious examples. We’re very aware that government agencies are needed to regulate the market; our media pays close attention to changes in welfare payments such as housing benefits, tax credits, and child benefit allowance.

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In the US, government plays a much smaller role in daily life. There is no public broadcaster equivalent to the BBC; social expenditures are channelled through the tax system rather than direct payments; and even the government-run health programme, Medicare, is sub-contracted to private healthcare companies. Many Americans simply don’t see what the state does for them – a fact that advocates of “small government” use to make their case for more cuts.

The US shutdown shows that when government spending stops it’s not just the government that’s affected. Salary freezes are passed on to the rest of society. Companies with government contracts, cafés with federal worker customers, public transport systems that rely on commuter fares, family support systems – Trump’s shutdown risks bringing down an entire micro-economy with it. In essence, the president has delivered a concentrated burst of austerity politics. Rather than celebrating a shock to the system, this should be a cautionary tale.

Daniel Neep is assistant professor in the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC

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