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Since the New Year, Chander Kanta says she hasn’t been able to sleep.
The 70-year-old thinks about all of her bills — mortgage, car, electricity, food — and how she’s going to pay them after being furloughed during the government shutdown.
“I have so much anxiety that I couldn’t sleep until 3 o’clock last night,” she said.
Kanta is part of the Senior Environmental Employment program at the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging. Largely funded by federal grant money, the program matches more than 200 seniors across the country with jobs at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a way to provide them supplemental income and a sense of community.
But with the shutdown — now the longest in history — the program furloughed its employees, leaving many Asian-American seniors without the funds to pay for housing, medicine and food.
Joon Bang, chief executive officer of the NAPCA, said the SEE program is one example of the ripple effects of the shutdown beyond the 800,000 furloughed federal employees.
“They feel isolated, they feel abandoned and they feel betrayed,” Bang said of SEE program participants. “A lot of our seniors already live with a sense of insecurity because of the language and cultural barriers, but this shutdown is adding on and compounding that level of insecurity because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
You’re talking about a complete shutdown — not just of the government for political purposes — but a shutdown in services for the most vulnerable in this country.
Kanta, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, said that in addition to losing her administrative assistant income from the SEE program, her application for Social Security benefits is also on hold. To make ends meet, she borrowed money from friends, changed her home insurance policy, cut back on cable and internet services, and stopped buying fruits, vegetables and cheese.
She worries that if the shutdown continues, she’ll have to sell her car or house to survive.
“There is no insurance for the shutdown,” Kanta said. “I have taken out all the other kinds of insurance, but for this, I have no clue what to do.”
Bang said that Asian-American seniors are particularly vulnerable, given their high rates of poverty. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are among the fastest-growing populations of seniors in the United States, according to data from the NAPCA, but many AAPI subpopulations are also more likely to be poor compared to the general senior population.
Among Cambodian seniors, 23.9 percent live in poverty, compared to 9.5 percent of the general senior population and 7.3 percent of white seniors. In addition, 19.3 percent of Vietnamese seniors, 20.3 percent of their Korean counterparts, 23.5 percent of Bangladeshi seniors, and 26.6 percent of Micronesian seniors live in poverty, according to a report published by the NAPCA.
Beyond the SEE program, Bang said there’s general concern about what the shutdown could mean for Asian-American seniors if benefits such as food stamps or housing assistance are eventually cut. In the SEE program, 160 seniors also rely on food stamps.
“You’re talking about a complete shutdown — not just of the government for political purposes — but a shutdown in services for the most vulnerable in this country,” he said.
Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation, a New York-based organization that represents a network of social service agencies, said that nonprofits aren’t equipped to fill in the gaps if federal safety net programs are suddenly eliminated.
“Even now, without the shutdown, and without food stamps and other safety net programs being cut, we’re having problems meeting the needs,” she said. “How will we meet them when we have new people coming in, saying, ‘I’m hungry, I need food?’"
Meanwhile, Kanta said that she meditates, practices yoga, and walks to stay calm.
“I keep walking so my mind stays alert, otherwise I’ll go into depression,” she said. “That’s how I’m surviving, but I don’t know how long I can carry on like that.”
Kanta said that she doesn’t normally follow U.S. politics, but recently started paying attention to try to make sense of what’s happening. She has a simple request.
“Just be kind to the public,” she said. “What did we do?”