5 unexpected ways the government shutdown is hurting families

Jan. 16, 2019

Kerry A., stay-at-home mom of two, isn’t in full-blown panic mode about the government shutdown — at least not yet. Her husband, an employee at the Environmental Protection Agency, is one of 800,000 federal workers (and roughly 4 million contractors) either furloughed or working without paychecks. Of course, the adverse effects of the current shutdown extend well beyond federally employed families — they're hurting families all over the country — but here's a peek at what Kerry's family is currently facing. 

Kerry and her husband have had to drastically cut back on non-essential spending. And for now, at least, they’ve pushed aside any hopes of a new haircut or date night. She thinks they have enough in savings to get them through February. But after that? Mortgage and car payments will be a bit harder to swing, she says.

“I wish we had stuck to having six months of living expenses — or at least mortgage payments — saved, but somehow that dwindled,” Kerry says.

She’s not alone. Whether it be through their own paychecks, government programs or the economic ecosystem that ties it all together, many parents rely on a fully funded government to keep their kids fed and families safe. Here’s what’s happening as that funding gets scaled back.   

1. Some families are having to pay double for child care

Many federal employees rely on federally sponsored child care centers to care for their children. And when the shutdown hit in December, many of those centers closed, even while some federally employed parents still had to go to work.

That’s what happened to working Washington D.C. parents Katie Hamm and her husband. When their son’s day care closed, her husband (a federal employee) still had to go to work unpaid. So they hired an in-home caregiver to make up the gap — even though they were still paying the day care center tuition.

“Without that revenue, our center can’t pay staff and other bills,” wrote Hamm in a blog post on MomsRising. “When you don’t pay your staff, they tend to look for other jobs — which means the center wouldn’t be able to re-open when the government shutdown ultimately ends.”

While Hamm told Care.com her husband did eventually receive a paycheck, she says they don’t know how long that will continue. Meanwhile, families attending her son’s day care center are starting to leave and enroll elsewhere.

2. Programs to help low-income parents feed their kids may run out of funding soon

The federal government provides services to a wide range of individuals and organizations to keep kids healthy and fed, and some of those services have either been halted or might be soon due to the government shutdown.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly called SNAP), for example, helps some 20 million households buy food every month. While the program currently has funding it can tap into right now, that money could run out if the shutdown continues for months (or years) as the president has suggested it might.

3. Families might lose their homes

The Federal Housing Administration and the Rural Health Service both endorse mortgages for families who might have a hard time getting a loan otherwise, including young couples who might not have a long credit history. But those mortgages are being delayed due to the shutdown. Zillow estimates that as many as 39,000 such mortgages have already been delayed, causing serious headaches for families in the process of buying a home. Likewise, getting tax documents, flood insurance or employment verifications (for federal employees) — all often necessary to get a loan — could add even more delays to the process.

But you don’t even have to be buying a house or refinancing your mortgage to risk losing out on a home. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) contracts with landlords to subsidize the cost of rent for low-income residents. Over 1,000 such HUD contracts reportedly have expired since the start of the shutdown, leaving some families worrying they’ll be evicted by their landlords if the subsidies aren’t restored.

4. Missed paychecks can make it harder for families to stay or get out of debt

Missing a paycheck is stressful even when you have savings, but for some unpaid federal workers living paycheck to paycheck, it could mean getting into (further) debt.

When some families don’t get the income they rely on to cover recurring costs like rent or child care, they resort to borrowing money, missing payments or putting bills on credit cards to make ends meet, says Jennifer McDermott, consumer advocate at finder.com. The longer the shutdown drags on, the more money these families will have to borrow (and eventually fork over), causing the debt they have to snowball.

The fact that the shutdown coincided with the holiday season might make this especially likely, says Ian McMillan, director of research and operations at Sherman Wealth Management in Gaithersburg, Maryland

“I am sure many federal employees — like many Americans in general — put Christmas spending on credit cards, expecting to pay it back in the new year. Yet, here we are,” McMillan says. “Those interest payments are now kicking in.”

Without a paycheck to pay off those payments (or other bills), those holiday expenses will only get more expensive.

5. Public health processes are being halted

If you’re not employed by the federal government, it can be tough to grasp the scope of the shutdown. Two billion dollars is such a daunting figure that it’s hard to comprehend, and consequences like losing your home are deeply personal and almost too devastating to imagine as parents.

But there is one potential impact all families can relate to: Illness.

Dozens of foodborne outbreaks happened in the United States in 2018. McDonald’s salads, pre-cut melon, Kellogg’s Honey Smacks Cereal, frozen shredded coconut — it felt like nothing was sacred.

The partially shut down U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the safety of non-meat facilities, medications and foodborne disease outbreaks. And although, reportedly, food safety inspections are starting again and outbreak investigators are on standby, the workers will likely go back to work unpaid.

Now, to be fair, there’s no way to know whether the government shutdown will lead to another foodborne outbreak. The FDA normally only inspects a tiny percentage of U.S. food production facilities. It mostly relies on the food industry itself to keep everything from broccoli to baby formula E.coli-free, with big brands like Costco taking the lead in enforcing high food safety standards.

But when cold and flu season is already wreaking havoc in homes, the prospect of yet another (potentially preventable) sickness striking families is enough to put some parents on edge. After all, if huge outbreaks can crop up when the government is fully funded (looking at you, romaine), what will happen when the food inspectors we rely on have to go to work unpaid?

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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