President Donald J. Trump has declared that the partial shutdown of the United States’ federal government, which started on December 21, could last for “months” or even “years” if Congress does not agree to fund his proposed U.S./Mexico border wall. And the longer the shutdown continues, the more of a hardship it will be for the roughly 800,000 federal government workers who have been either furloughed or asked to report to work without a definite pay date.
But the pain goes way beyond Americans who work for the federal government. If the shutdown does, in fact, drag on for months as Trump is threatening, everything from food stamps to tax refunds could be affected.
The shutdown comes at a time when millions of Americans are working on tax returns that must be filed by April 15: federal, state and — if one lives in New York City or Philadelphia — local. Some Americans wait until the last minute to file their returns, but others hate to procrastinate and prefer to file them early and get them out of the way — especially if they are likely to be receiving a refund. Problem: the partial shutdown has cut off new funding for the United States Treasury Department, which affects salaried workers as well as freelancers, the self-employed and people in the gig economy.
Salaried workers receive federal tax refunds if too much was withheld from their paychecks, while the self-employed receive federal refunds if their quarterly estimated payments (which are made to the Treasury Department) were excessive. Quite often, small business owners and freelancers overpay when sending their estimated payments in order to avoid possible penalties. But when the Treasury Department isn’t receiving its usual funding, it isn’t going to have its usual timeline for issuing federal tax refunds to either salaried workers or the self-employed.
These days, the term “food stamps” is a figure of speech because food assistance is made via debit cards and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But while the technology has changed, the idea behind the program—which started in 1939 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and was expanded under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society in 1964 — remains the same: preventing the poor from going hungry. And the food stamp program is still administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), one of the government agencies impeded by the shutdown. According to a flow chart on the department’s website, 95% of USDA employees have been sent home without pay thanks to Trump’s shutdown.
The food stamp program, which requires annual funding from Congress, has enough emergency reserves for some of February’s SNAP payments—although not all of them. And there will be no SNAP funds left for March payments.
However, tax refunds and food stamp payments are only a few of the ways in which the shutdown can harm Americans who don’t work for the federal government. Republicans who love to demonize federal government workers—even hypocritical GOP senators and representatives who work for the federal government—fail to realize that the financial wellbeing of government workers negatively affects the private sector.
When they are receiving their paychecks on time, federal workers who have jobs with the U.S. Treasury Department or the USDA make a wide range of payments or purchases—from gas and electric bills to mortgage payments or rent to purchasing computer software. Everything from the local Apple store to bars and restaurants can suffer when a federal government worker isn’t being paid.
On January 3, the Washington Post cited a perfect example of Trump’s shutdown hurting the private sector. Kelly Dodge, the project manager for a Colorado-based tech firm that develops software for the federal government, told the Post that none of her coders are getting paid. Although those coders work in the private sector, they clearly have a stake in the wellbeing of the federal government.
Other government agencies in which big chunks of the workforce have been furloughedrange from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Every one of those agencies uses software programs that are developed in the private sector.
In previous shutdowns, many federal workers were reimbursed for lost wages. But while they were being furloughed or asked to report to work without a definite pay date, they had to tighten their belts — which affected everyone in the private sector they were making payments to.
Partially shutting down the federal government is a source of pride for President Trump. But for all those who are hurting from the shutdown — including millions of Americans who work in the private sector — it is a source of misery.