Now in its third week, the government shutdown is causing myriad disruptions to thousands of federal programs. Vital scientific research has been interrupted, unplowed and snow-covered roads have kept people trapped in their homes, bathrooms in National Parks are overflowing with human waste, and domestic-violence shelters are scrambling to make sure they can keep their doors open next month.
Although the consequences of the shutdown are sweeping—a fact that came as a surprise to Trump administration officials, according to The Washington Post—they are particularly burdensome for low-income Americans. Thousands of federal contractors, many of whom work in low-wage jobs cleaning, staffing, and securing government buildings, are losing weeks of wages that may never be repaid. For people who depend on food stamps and on public housing, the shutdown could become far more than an inconvenience if it stretches out for months, as President Trump has suggested it could.
If the shutdown continues into February, the food assistance that 38 million Americans rely on could run out. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is administered by the Department of Agriculture, has funding only through the end of this month. USDA’s contingency fund, if tapped, would cover only part of February. The agency has kept mostly quiet about the threat to food assistance and has not said when exactly the money will run out or what would be done in that event. But according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, families could see their benefits reduced in February and then “virtually eliminated” in March. Federal funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) has already been cut off, with states left to paper over the gap.
People living in public housing are also at risk. Ninety-five percent of employees at the Department of Housing and Urban Development have been furloughed, and mandatory health-and-safety inspections of housing units are on hold until the government reopens. Funding to fix leaky roofs, boilers, and other crucial repairs may be delayed, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. More than 1,000 contracts for low-income housing have expired, with HUD unable to renew them while the shutdown lasts. That means that landlords aren’t getting paid. According to Diane Yentel of the NLIHC, that puts 80,000 renters—mostly seniors and people with disabilities living on less than $13,000 a year—in danger of eviction if the shutdown lasts. Another 500 contracts will expire later in January, and 550 more in February.
Meanwhile, thousands of janitors, food-service workers, security guards, and others who work for government contractors are not being paid. Unlike federal employees, who recouped back pay after previous government shutdowns and expect to do so again, contractors aren’t usually paid for the lost workdays. Many of these employees earn poverty wages, and can’t afford to lose weeks of income. According the advocacy group Good Jobs Nation, 4.5 million contract workers for the government earn less than $15 an hour. One janitor who works at the State Department told The Washington Post that just a week or two of missed wages might force her to move in with her mother in North Carolina. A contractor for the Department of Transportation had to ask for an extension on her rent payment, took extra shifts at a seasonal job, and set up a GoFundMe account. The crowdfunding site currently has over 1,000 pages regarding the government shutdown.
None of this is inevitable. The Senate could take up the spending package passed by the House last week to end the shutdown. Trump could drop his demand that funding for basic government services be contingent on money for a border wall. And Congress could ensure that any legislation to reopen the government guarantees retroactive pay not only to federal employees but also to contract workers. Democrats in the Senate and House have proposed legislation in the last week to do just that. But like everything else, it remains in limbo.