It took 19 days of a dwindling bank account and little reassurance that things would get better for Carol Armen to break down completely. The 54-year-old subcontractor for the National Mediation Board isn’t getting any work during the partial government shutdown, spurred by the Trump administration’s insistence on a southern border wall. And since she cares for her 14-year-old autistic son and works around his needs, it would be difficult for her to find another job with the right hours. She doesn’t have retirement savings. For now, her 81-year-old mother is covering her health insurance bills out of her social security checks.
So, Wednesday night, she cried.
“Last night, I just lost it, and then he broke down,” Armen, based in Philadelphia, said of her son on Thursday. “He’s not in school today because he couldn’t sleep. When I’m having issues, he’s having issues. I wish I could hide them better.”
“But I feel so alone. There’s no one to help me,” Armen said.
The following morning, on the other side of the country, Emily Elledge had a panic attack in the parking lot of a Santa Barbara, California, grocery store. The 38-year-old had been walking through the aisles thinking about “what the best dinner options will be for getting longevity out of the food we’re choosing.”
Elledge cares for her two children while her husband works as a firefighter for the Forest Service. The shutdown has also impacted that agency. Her husband is currently working without pay and is about to miss his first check.
“We were already on a very tight budget,” Elledge said. “This has put us in a tailspin.”
Heather Harrell, a 29-year-old contractor for the Bureau of Land Management missed her grandmother’s funeral on Tuesday. She’s based in Canyon City, Colorado, and couldn’t afford the plane ticket to North Carolina as she faced another week without income and no guarantee that she’ll be offered back pay once the government reopens.
“I haven’t had very many good days,” she said. As President Donald Trump attempts to strongarm Congress into funding the construction of a $5.7 billion wall on the U.S. southern border, tens of thousands of Americans are facing shrinking checking accounts or dipping into their savings — if they have any. At least 800,000 federal employees are impacted by the shutdown. Their hardships are often shared by family members who pick up the slack. Then, there are the contractors, who rely on government work orders to pay their bills. The business owners who can’t get loans. The nonprofit workers who can’t get grants.
On Saturday, the shutdown became the longest in U.S. history.
The government’s impasse over funding for a southern border wall — and subsequent partial shutdown — has underscored a stark reality for many: Despite a strong U.S. economy, most people across the nation live paycheck-to-paycheck and lack sufficient savings to last more than a few weeks without income. On Friday, some federal government workers shared their the pay stubs from their first missed checks on Twitter: They netted zero dollars for weeks of labor.
The U.S. unemployment rate is at its lowest since 2000, but other data points to a separate American existence. Surveys show nearly 80 percent of U.S. workers live paycheck-to-paycheck. Twelve million Americans take out high-interest, short-term “payday loans” to scrape by each year. Government data show 40 percent of Americans can’t afford a $400 emergency expense without first selling some belongings or borrowing money. On average, a U.S. household with some sort of debt owes more than $135,000 in combined mortgage, car, credit card, and student loan payments.
Days into the partial shutdown, a hashtag where government workers shared stories of financial distress instantly went viral.
Federal workers described the mental calculus that plays out when the pay checks stop coming in: How long can they get by without a salary, and at what risk? Which bills, if any, can be skipped? How long can food reserves last? When is it time to give up a once-secure lifetime government career and look for jobs in the private sector?
Armen, the subcontractor caring for her autistic son, skipped Christmas with her family to save gas since they’re about 45 minutes away from her. She’s also eating less so she and her son can get by. “I invented the shutdown diet,” she said. The National Mediation Board told VICE News that their agency is still funded, and employees and contractors are not affected by the shutdown.
Armen is six months late on her car inspection, so she scraped together money and coupons to head to the auto shop on Saturday. She’s also postponed necessary medical exams, like a mammogram, because she already has medical debt. She’s selling and returning what she can.
“Rent, food, electric, Wi-Fi — that’s it. Everything else is just going to have to take care of itself for a while,” Armen said, noting she has unpaid medical and credit card bills. “There’s nothing I can do. My credit is tanked.” “It’s going to take us forever to recover, ” added Armen, who does not support the construction of a southern border wall and did not vote for Trump.
It doesn’t take much time at all to deplete your hard-earned savings, said Harrell, the Bureau of Land Management contractor. But it’ll take her a while to build it back — especially since her fiance is being treated for brain cancer, and the time will soon run out on the unemployment checks he’s been collecting.
Elledge, the stay-at-home mom married to a federal employee, said she feels luckier than some, since her husband will likely get paid once the government opens back up. Plus, she said, they’re immensely proud to be a “fire family.” They just have bills to pay and have to try and stay calm for their 3-year-old and 1-year-old.
“We’re losing sleep over this. We’re stressing out,” Elledge said.
No end in sight
Ian Lundgren, a 43-year-old government biologist based in Honolulu, has been doing some math. He’ll make it to March, at least. Since he’s not working, he started dipping into his line of credit this pay period. His rental home is up for sale, so he’s worried about being kicked out during the shutdown. But he’s paid off his loans, and he owns his car. “I’m in better shape than most people,” Lundgren said. Still, his line of credit will only extend to about $15,000, so he’s looking into getting unemployment insurance or a part-time gig driving for Lyft.
"But I feel so alone. There’s no one to help me."
Maria Ortega, a 44-year-old employee at a San Diego medical research institute, also counts herself as somewhat lucky. Her husband is a U.S. Customs Officer who’s working without pay, but she’s able to stretch her paycheck to cover their mortgage and daughter’s college tuition. They also have savings and don’t live paycheck-to-paycheck. With a bit of belt-tightening — and if they dip into their savings — they’ll make it seven-to-eight months without him getting paid.
“This administration is a game-changer. We’ve been through other government shutdowns. This time it’s different. We don’t feel like it’s a given that we’re going to get paid,” Ortega said.
Both Ortega and Lundgren said they weren’t confident Trump will end the shutdown soon, and neither support a border wall. Trump has floated the idea of declaring a national emergency to access funding for the southern border wall but hasn’t made it clear when — if ever — he’ll do that. That, at the moment, appears to be the only route he’s willing to take out of the shutdown, apart from Congress funding the border wall outright. And if he did make an emergency declaration, it’d likely be challenged in court.
Trump has made it clear on Twitter, in interviews, and even during a primetime TV address that he’s won’t agree to open the government back up until he gets the wall. Congress seems resigned to that — despite the fact that fewer undocumented immigrants are already coming across the border, and polls showing that a majority of Americans oppose building a border wall.
At one point, Trump said he’d be fine stretching the shutdown for months — even years. When asked about the “human pain” that federal workers are feeling during the shutdown, he responded: "You know has more human pain? The parents of people who had children killed by an illegal immigrant that should have never been in the country." (Undocumented immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than U.S.-born citizens.) “Whenever Trump says he can relate, it’s like a slap in the face when we’re already down,” Harrell said.
Frustrated, Elledge tweeted at Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva on Thursday. By Friday morning, Grijalva was showing her tweet on the House floor.
“We feel like we’re pawns, that we’re being held hostage,” Elledge said. “We just want to live.”
Cover image: Pam Harrison participates in a federal workers protest rally at the Federal Building Thursday, Jan., 10, 2019, in Ogden, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)