About 800,000 federal employees have been required to work without pay or have been furloughed during the last four weeks in what has become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
Some airport restaurants are giving away food for free to unpaid Transportation Security Administration employees. Food pantries have been set up to offer dry and canned goods to federal workers. Coast Guard members received recommendations to have garage sales to try to get by without pay during the shutdown. And when the federal employees missed their January paychecks, it was the first time in history that service members in a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces - the Coast Guard - went without pay during a government shutdown.
The shutdown has a lot of people nervous about their future, and highlighted a big problem in the U.S., especially for American families: About 80 percent of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, according to a study by CareerBuilder. And that doesn’t just affect people with low incomes. The 2017 study found one in 10 workers who make $100,000 or more a year reported they also live paycheck-to-paycheck.
It’s easy to say that people are living outside of their means, or they should cut their expenses. It’s easy to judge, when we aren’t affected by the shutdown.
But like the saying goes, don’t throw stones if you live in a glass house. At least 44 percent of Americans said they did not have the money set aside to cover a $400 emergency expense, according to the Federal Reserve Board. Another 2017 study found that 34 percent of those surveyed had experienced a major unexpected expense in the previous year.
While watching and reading the news about the federal employees, I can’t help but feel bad for them - where would I be if I was in their shoes?
How many of us parents have had to choose between putting our kids in soccer or another extracurricular activity and being able to pay the child-care bill that month? I know I have. I want my children to experience as much in life as possible, but we have to pay our bills and make sure the basics are covered first. I know many other parents, like myself, who shop consignment sales to clothe our kids and sell the clothes they have outgrown. We don’t live in lavish houses. We buy generic-brand foods from discount grocery stores, we buy used cars and drive them for a decade or more. We budget our paychecks, sometimes down to the dollar, and yet there are times when when our bank account is down to almost nothing and there are still a few days left until payday.
And then there are the bad months, the months when the car breaks down or a child or a pet gets sick. Some of us are lucky enough to have an emergency fund or family members to help. But what do you do when that runs out or it isn’t enough?
The shutdown, as unfortunate as it is, highlights a problem in America, and that is there are too many people working paycheck-to-paycheck. There are so many college graduates out there who are overqualified for their jobs - working two or more jobs, just to pay the bills. There are contract employees who work with little or no job security, and part-time workers who wish they could get a job full-time. In a time of relative low-unemployment and economic prosperity, how many people have gone five years or more without a pay increase in the last decade? Too many.
As this government shutdown drags on, we should do something for those affected and help others as we can. But we should also help ourselves, if possible, and prepare - because rainy days happen, more often than not.
Lydia Seabol Avant writes The Mom Stop for The Tuscaloosa News in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.