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How the shutdown opened a window on poverty in America

Analysis: Furloughed workers are now getting paid, but economic insecurity remains top of mind for millions of Americans living on the financial edge.
Image: Furloughed government worker Sarah Stella, with the USDA, hands out fruit to other furloughed government workers at the World Central Kitchen in Washington on Jan. 22, 2019.
Furloughed government worker Sarah Stella, with the USDA, hands out fruit to other furloughed government workers at the World Central Kitchen in Washington on Jan. 22, 2019.Andrew Harnik / AP

Last week, Congress ended the federal shutdown — at least for now — slowing the daily flow of stories about furloughed workers who cannot pay their rent, work but have no savings, or are insured but cannot afford their medication.

But while those workers have returned to their jobs, the problems that come with economic insecurity remain top of mind for millions of poor and even middle-income Americans living on the financial edge. Most of these Americans are white, but a disproportionate share are not. Many of them work, but they’ve been crushed for at least a decade since the Great Recession by stagnant wages and rising costs for everything essential to live.

And, much like the federal workers who were left scrambling with little savings after their pay was cut off, many Americans don’t have anything left over to save, not even enough to cover a $400 emergency.

“The economy has been shut down for a lot of people long before the government shut down,” said Chuck Collins, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank in Washington, where he researches inequality.

“That’s why I think that all of these stories about federal workers may, and I stress may, have made a lot of people stop and say, ‘Huh, this is a lot of people’s story all the time. This is my story,’” Collins said. He was referring to recent news articles profiling furloughed workers who could not afford the co-pays on critical medication, borrowed from family and friends, asked total strangers for help and stood in line at food banks. “So, how many of my neighbors, my friends, are also invisibly living close to the edge?’”

Most of the jobs that employ the largest number of Americans pay less than $40,000 a year. Half of all retail clerks, who have America’s most common job, earn $23,370 a year or less.

Poverty — defined by the government as a family of four earning less than $24,600 in 2017 — is not evenly distributed. While 8.7 percent of white Americans were poor in 2017, the figure was 21.2 percent for black Americans, 18.3 percent for Latinos and 10 percent for Asian-Americans, according to Census data. And those numbers don’t include the many Americans who make slightly more, but still less than $33,425 ($16.07 per hour), which Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers identified as 2017’s living wage, the amount needed to survive without public assistance.

Adding to the problem is the way that wages tend to be distributed. In both the federal workforce and the private sector, people of color are clustered in the lowest-wage jobs in almost every industry. The tier of federal workers that earns up to $37,630 a year is 32 percent black, while the tier that earns up to $136,659 is only 11 percent black.

That earnings landscape translates into need — most often food need — said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, an organization which partners with food banks around the country and advocates for anti-hunger policy. Even before the shutdown began, the nation’s food banks were “stretched to the brink,” Berg said, with 43.5 million people receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, including food stamps.

“We are a rich country,” Berg said. “We like to think of ourselves as a rich country.” Only in moments of crisis like the shutdown, he said, do Americans “contend with and face the fact that we are also a country where half of all people will receive food stamps at some point in their lifetime, and in 2017, about 40 million people lived in food-insecure homes. We ignore that until we can’t.”

Image: Furloughed government workers line up to receive lunch at World Central Kitchen in Washington on Jan. 25, 2019.
Furloughed government workers line up to receive lunch at World Central Kitchen in Washington on Jan. 25, 2019.Shawn Thew / EPA

Even in the face of overwhelming evidence of American poverty and its systemic causes, some would still prefer to ignore it. That desire often takes the form of preposterous advice to the poor, Collins said, such as advising people to cut out Netflix — about $10 a month, not enough to make a dent in rent or grocery bills. The federal government struck many people as absurd and out of touch for its accidentally published advice for the furloughed — barter, offer up carpentry skills and do odd jobs in exchange for rent and food.

“There is a powerful form of denial that’s also a part of our national story,” Collins said. “Most of us don’t like to look at the vulnerability inside of our own lives. If you have a narrative that says that people who are struggling are there because of some failure or failing on their part, and wealthy people are there because of some virtue and ability on their part, then you are very likely to view this moment through that same lens."

Rochelle Poe ran into some of that during the shutdown.

She’s a single black woman who has spent the last 20 years working for the Department of Agriculture. In 2017, she moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to Raleigh, North Carolina, at her own expense to take a promotion to mortgage underwriting, a move that put her so deep into debt that for a year she had to work a second part-time job. She earns less than the $61,806.27 that a Raleigh newspaper reported is the minimum salary needed to afford a home in the area.

Poe has long lived without cable, Starbucks and many of the other so-called luxuries that some financial advisers insist that people can cut out and solve their monetary problems.

When Poe went without pay during the furlough, friends advised her to rely on her savings, but she doesn’t have any. The move drained them.

The church she’s been attending for years did not respond to her request for help with her rent. North Carolina unemployment officials told her she did not have sufficient written proof of her unemployment, rejecting her claim three times before approving it last week. And, when Poe went to her apartment complex management to ask for an extension, she was told to pay or expect eviction proceedings to begin in 15 days.

Then Poe heard Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross say that he didn’t understand why furloughed workers would have to rely on food banks, when they could easily get low-interest loans.

“I don’t think I quite have the words to convey to you how scary, how disheartening, how hurtful this experience has been,” Poe said. “You run into people who are, I guess, themselves so comfortable that they are just completely ignorant of the realities of other people’s lives. And you also realize how unaware you have been of how the system, all the programs that are supposed to help you, really work, or don’t work and are designed to treat you with a lot of suspicion.”

The only reason Poe, whose parents are both deceased, had any food or gas at all in the last month is thanks to a few helpful friends and some pickup work offered by a Durham, North Carolina, distillery, she said.

There’s a long history of stereotypes about the poor — many racially driven — and Collins said they are often visible just beneath the surface of proposals that would shred the social safety net. He cited former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s 2012 assertion that the social safety net had become a kind of “hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”

Ryan’s solutions are popular with Republican lawmakers, and the White House has angled to limit enrollment and attach work requirements to a food stamp program that largely serves families with young children and the elderly, Collins said.

The president and many other Americans assume poverty is a black problem, while “economic anxiety” is more widespread among whites who deserve better. Poverty is more often regarded as an outgrowth of moral failings or a faint work ethic, the problem of black people who haven’t done their part, a recurring Los Angeles Times poll has shown. Economic anxiety affects those “hard-working” white people often referred to during the 2016 campaign as a population in need of federal support. That’s tied to widespread American notions about the deserving and the undeserving, who should and should not have what they need, Collins said.

Americans have help arriving at those conclusions. A review of local and national news stories conducted by Color of Change, a civil rights organization based in Oakland, California, and the Family Story, a think tank in Washington that advocates for policies that benefit a wide variety of families, found that between 2015 and 2016, black families represented 59 percent of the poor in the news but made up 27 percent of the nation’s poor in real life.

Collins said a change in public perception may be an unintended benefit of the shutdown.

“To see prison guards and air traffic controllers,” Collins said, “and all kinds of people out there essentially saying, ‘I have no savings,’ you know, ‘I am hungry, my children are hungry.’ I think it has pulled back the veil on some statistics, on what I call the underwater nation, the huge share of people who are just barely getting by if everything goes exactly right.”