Edit ModuleShow Tags

Essential services

Locals reel from the longest government shutdown in US history

Eileen Bradshaw, Executive Director at Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, was on the front lines of the relief effort during the partial government shutdown

Greg Bollinger

The federal government shut down at the stroke of midnight Dec. 22, three days before Christmas. President Trump refused to sign any bill to keep the government open that did not include $5.7 billion for one of his signature campaign promises, a wall built along our border with Mexico. The shutdown lasted for 35 days, the longest in U.S. history.

Funding was temporarily restored to the federal government on Jan. 25, and will last until Feb. 15. The stopgap spending bill passed by Congress included no funding for the border wall. Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency or shut down the government again if his demands for border wall funding are not met.

The shutdown itself cost the U.S. economy $11 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Economists predict that most of it will flow back into the economy as furloughed workers receive back pay. Almost a quarter of the total was permanently lost, however.

Nine executive departments were fully or partially closed, furloughing roughly 800,000 federal workers—including about 7,000 in Oklahoma. Additionally, vital programs for families in need were disrupted, which will affect millions of the most vulnerable Americans for weeks or months to come, even if a more permanent deal is signed before Feb. 15. Even if the government stays open, the ripple-effects of the shutdown will affect federal workers and families for weeks, months, or even years.

One such furloughed worker was Greg Woods. Woods has been an air traffic controller for 29 years, the last 17 of them in Tulsa, and usually he enjoys it. But during the shutdown, he was expected to return to work one of the world’s most stressful jobs without pay.

“After a certain point I started checking with my creditors, seeing if I could defer payments, put things off like that,” he said. Mostly people were accommodating. Greg points out that even with a deal like this, he has to pay interest on his loans, costing more than if he hadn’t had to defer.

Woods and his crew are mostly older, more experienced air traffic controllers. Some of them are eligible for retirement, including Woods, and are more financially stable. Younger ATCs are more vulnerable.

Jason Perkins, Tulsa’s National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) representative, works with younger ATCs and says that many of them struggled during the shutdown. One of his crew members is pregnant with her second child, and her husband is also a controller. Neither were paid during the shutdown.

Others had trouble making rent. “Apartments don’t take IOU’s,” Perkins said. “They might give you a grace on the late period, but we missed two checks.”

It makes an already-stressful job that much more difficult, even for seasoned controllers. “We’re trained to deal with work-related stress,” said Perkins. “But when you’re walking in and you’re already stressed out, then you throw that on top, that’s tough to handle.”

Woods and Perkins say that while air traffic is still safe, the FAA’s ability to carry out key functions has been hugely disrupted. Accident investigations, quality assurance, spot-checking, and other functions that support air traffic control were suspended during the shutdown. Workers now have a huge backlog of work to finish before Feb. 15.

Nationally, the NATCA has been asking for a stable funding stream. Powell says that, since air traffic controllers are essential personnel, there ought to be money available to pay them under circumstances like these. But funding for the FAA comes through so many different budget lines that red tape has made this a long, uphill battle.

Eileen Bradshaw, executive director at Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, was on the front lines of the relief effort. While most furloughed federal workers could keep themselves afloat during the shutdown, the food bank still distributed food to roughly 80 federal households from its front desk and even more through partner programs throughout the region and during a pop-up pantry event.

What really worries Bradshaw is the state of SNAP funding. “If it had gone on longer, or if it happens again, and federal nutrition programs begin to be affected,” said Bradshaw. “Then the numbers will likely become much more significant.” About 600,000 Oklahomans receive SNAP benefits, all of whom were affected.

On Jan. 20, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services issued February SNAP benefits early. The USDA, which manages the SNAP program, figured out that the continuing resolution that ran out at the end of December contained a clause that any funding obligations for SNAP programs within 30 days of the continuing resolution expiration must be paid. States were instructed to request February’s SNAP benefits early and issue them by Jan. 20.

The problem with this arrangement is that some families on food stamps will not receive more benefits until March 10, depending on when they are scheduled to receive them. Bradshaw says that families often run out of benefits about two or three weeks after they receive them, leaving later-scheduled families in the lurch.

“Our fear is that there is going to be a more pronounced need towards the end of February, beginning of March, amongst these SNAP recipient families,” said Bradshaw. And that’s if the government doesn’t shut down again, which is still a very real possibility.

OKDHS has received assurances from the USDA that funding for March benefits has been built into the temporary reopening of the government. April benefits can be paid out early like the February benefits. Funding past March does not currently exist.

A local SNAP recipient, who asked to remain anonymous, said she worries about being able to feed herself and her kids. “I’ve already used at least $100 that I was supposed to get today that I used in January.” she said. “And that’s been nice for a minute but it’s really gonna screw me over in the end.”

On top of her own children, she helps her sister-in-law take care of her two kids. As of Feb. 1, she estimates that her sister-in-law has already used half of her February benefits. She anticipates having to help feed her and her kids in the coming weeks. “If I have this much of a break in between [benefits] then most definitely I’m gonna be going to food banks or something.”

Now that temporary funding has been restored, the government could shut down again, and no one can predict for how long. Even with money coming in, it is impossible for families to budget for an uncertain future. “If you’re anticipating another shutdown, do I really get caught up on all those back payments that I owe, or do I hold on to my money so that I can make future payments,” said Woods. “Because I can only defer like a month.” Perkins is telling his union members to act as though another shutdown is coming, just to be safe.

SNAP recipients, and people who receive other benefits have even more to be worried about. If the government shuts down again there will be another cycle of disrupted payments at the very least. “Even if three weeks runs out and the federal government is shut down again over this political fight, we will still be able to issue food benefits just like we did in January,” Powell said. “The problem is, it creates another month where people are getting their benefits early and they could run out early in April.”

It isn’t just food stamps either. OKDHS gets commodities, actual food items, from the federal government, which are then distributed to low-income families through food banks. They also go to places like childcare centers, and schools for lunch programs. Had the government been shut down longer, or if it shuts down again for too long, these could be disrupted. This means our state’s most vulnerable families could lose access to sources of food while the political struggle rages on.

“Wall, no wall, we don’t care,” said Perkins. “The politicians can debate that. Just leave us out of it. Don’t hold us hostage.” The president has said that if Congress cannot agree on funding for the border wall, which he originally promised would be funded by Mexico, he will either shut down the government again or declare a national emergency—despite the fact that unauthorized border crossing arrests have been in decline for decades, and are currently at the lowest levels in nearly 50 years.

The effects of the first shutdown will already affect thousands of people across the state for a long time to come. The cost of another one is difficult to calculate. Until a more permanent agreement is reached, thousands of Oklahomans and millions of other Americans will live in flux, bargaining chips in a fight they never asked to be a part of.

Edit ModuleShow Tags

More from this author 

In the weeds

Unpacking the baggage of cannabis

Stifled scholars

TU cuts threaten graduate students and research