When I visited my sister and brother-in-law last Sunday, they were taking inventory of their food pantry.
As a solidly middle-class family with two incomes (most of the time), they’re not close to being food insecure, but they’re taking seriously the chance that my brother-in-law, who for 12 years has worked for a federal agency based in Ogden, might not be getting a paycheck anytime soon.
That’s a reality for roughly 800,000 federal workers during this prolonged partial government shutdown.
My relatives are taking all measures possible to protect the life they’ve worked hard to build and maintain, although, when I asked them if I could tell the story of their family’s shutdown experience, they were cautious that I not overstate their predicament and asked that I not use my brother-in-law’s name to avoid violating his department’s policy.
“For us, this is mostly a matter of inconvenience,” my sister, Joey, explained. “Depending on the length of this furlough and whether or not he’s given back pay, we’ll go from comfortable to less comfortable.”
She’s the kind of person who completed a job promotion interview despite going into active labor with her first child. A complainer she is not. Unfortunately, this isn’t their first experience with government shutdowns, though this one feels more daunting. In the past, Congress has given employees back pay.
In recent years, my sister and brother-in-law have achieved financial stability, something they haven’t always had. It came with great effort and, lucky for them, began with great privilege.
“Being in a position where we could save money was relatively new,” he explained, remembering the days of Top Ramen. He gave Joey all the credit for the nest egg that was meant for home improvements or medical needs, but that may now evaporate because of his unwanted unemployment.
A planned medical procedure may have to wait depending on the size of the co-pay. And their dreams of investing in their home, their plans to travel or eat out, any saving for their children’s futures and any nonessential family spending have all been put on hold.
Their frugality will ensure they can continue paying their mortgage, child care and grocery bills, and even then, there was no hiding their growing unease and frustration. Like many families, they see this eroding their chance at living the American Dream. It also has a deeper impact on a proud federal employee, who is having a hard time reconciling that he’s been sidelined because President Donald Trump is trying to force Congress to pay for an expanded southern border wall.
“It’s demoralizing,” he said, his gaze wandering toward the window. He continued without returning his attention to the table.
“This job that I love, that I take pride in, and that I have perceived as being important to my community and my country is deemed outright ‘nonessential.’ It’s honestly not easy to come back from that.
“I’ve gone from doing a job I thought was valuable to society to being a pawn in someone’s game,” he said.
“Yeah, this is forced sacrifice for something we can’t even get behind,” Joey said, making it clear that their involvement would feel different if the ultimate goal were something worthy. “But instead, this resides somewhere on the scale of negligence to cruelty. We’re figuring out how to live on half our income because an angry person wants to spend a bunch of money to NOT help people in crisis. It’s shameless.”
“It’s shameful,” I suggested.
No matter how long this shutdown lasts, they talked about how they’ll work to ensure their two children eat well and have an uninterrupted childhood experience.
They will be OK because they’re better situated than many, but we all worry greatly for those who are not.
Marina Gomberg is a communications professional and lives in Salt Lake City with her wife, Elenor Gomberg, and their son, Harvey. You can reach Marina at firstname.lastname@example.org.