Partial government shutdown has devastating effects on families in Evanston, nationwide

Cate Lynch and Jojo Wertheimer

On Dec. 22, 2018, many ETHS students were relaxing on their first day of break and preparing for the holidays. Meanwhile, 800,000 federal workers in Evanston and across the country, were undergoing their first day as furloughed workers in a tedious and destructive partial government shutdown that would go down as the longest in U.S. history.

The shutdown lasted 35 days, from Dec. 22, 2018 to Jan. 25, 2019. It was enacted by Trump in an effort to get Congress to fund a $5.7 billion wall on the border of the U.S. and Mexico.

On Feb. 15, 2019, Trump declared a national emergency to build the wall, authorizing him to build it without the funding of Congress.

Employees who were furloughed, allotted a leave of absence, endured 35 days without a paycheck, and some were still required to work –preventing them from getting another job. According to The New York Times, each furloughed government worker missed over $5,000 of pay, on average, as of Jan. 16, 2019, although that money will be payed back.

The Agriculture, Treasury, Environmental Protection Agency, and Housing and Urban Development Dept. employees were either completely furloughed or working without pay. The Department of Homeland Security, Justice, Interior, Trasperatation, Commerce and the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] experienced something similar, except they had some additional employees still working and being payed, according to The Washington Post.

For many families and communities, the financial struggle was devastating and had effects on the mental and physical health of workers and family members; the shutdown caused additional stress for families to make ends meet or pay important bills, including medical expenses.

National level

Trump’s presidency is often the subject of debate and has been for over two years. His decision to partially shut down the government seems to have sparked even more outrage and conversation across the nation, with many uniting in their frustrations.

Michelle Bell, a TSA agent in Atlanta, told the New York Times, “I think to secure the border is important. I guess I can understand where the president is coming from. But at the expenses of 800,000 people’s livelihood? I don’t.”

Many employees, working without pay, called in sick; however, for remaining workers, high levels of stress directly caused by the shutdown seem to be taking a toll. Trish Gilbert, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association told CNN, “We are already short-staffed. Now you have added the stress to air traffic controllers and their personal circumstances, and they’re not sleeping at night. We are concerned that they are not fit for duty.”

Families and individuals who rely on government support also struggled to make ends meet during the shutdown. A 2015 United States Census revealed that about 21.3 percent of the U.S. population rely on or uses government support. The most common assistance programs are Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Yet, states were granted their Medicaid funds through the month of March, according to the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute, and the USDA made the decision to operate SNAP throughout February, as reported by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. There was uncertainty as to whether the government would be shut down again, but on Feb. 15, President Trump decided against another shutdown, instead choosing to declare a national emergency. The current state of emergency will not affect funding, so those who rely on government support will continue to receive funding.

County level

With O’Hare in Chicago, Cook County was largely affected by the shutdown. For many of the 1,600 TSA agents working at the O’Hare airport, the missing paycheck left them struggling to make ends meet.

“I’m going to either lose it [my house] or my credit rating is going to go way down and my interest rate is going to go up. This is affecting me personally and a lot of the people I’ve talked to,” Christine Vitel, a TSA agent at O’Hare told the Chicago Tribune.

Vitel just bought a new house and is putting her son through college. She has been working for the TSA for 16 years.

‘“I just bought a house. I’m not going to be able to pay my mortgage,” Vitel told the Chicago Sun Times. “So, yes, this is affecting me personally. Other people are married. They do have another income. I do not.”’

Furloughed workers who couldn’t keep up with their financial responsibilities turned to food banks to relieve some financial stress. Many Cook County food banks encouraged federal workers who were struggling with money to use the services they provided. The Greater Chicago Food Depository delivered food to over 500 federal employees including Chicago TSA agents, Federal Bureau of Prison workers, and members of the Coast Guard. Care for Real, a food pantry in Chicago, offered any federal employee with government identification food and clothing for free.

City level

Seeing so many reports of those affected by the partial government shutdown across the country, it is easy to forget our own neighbors. In January 2019, Evanston Now estimated that about 240 residents were furloughed. Government workers who currently reside in Evanston may have qualified for the Emergency Assistance Program, which is overseen by the Health and Human Services Dept. The program requires federal employees living in Evanston to provide proof that they have been furloughed. The City of Evanston took steps shortly after to assist these employees by networking with nonprofits and assessing and supplying basic needs.

The city was able to keep programs funded and operational during the shutdown, and concerns will be eased as funding will continue to come in from the government during the national emergency.

Sarah Flax, Housing and Grants Manager at the City of Evanston explained in an interview for The Evanstonian how many organizations rely on government funds in Evanston.

“We have housing that would be very definitely affected, there are approx 390 active Evanston clients receiving WIC [Women, Infants, and Children’s Program], and SNAP would be exponentially larger than that [housing].”

Flax explained that the shutdown did not only affect residents, but many nonprofits, as well as the city as they receive about two million dollars annually from government funding.

As for what the funding goes toward, “A lot of it is housing for very low income people, programs that support the homeless, infrastructure project.” The list continued, and Flax made it clear that there was uncertainty as to whether they would ever get that money back.