The federal government shutdown is about to enter its fourth week with no end in sight, which is a travesty for Americans depending on federal salaries.
But as federal workers wait eagerly for lawmakers to pass a funding bill so they can get back to work, a long-overdue national conversation on the tenuous nature of the economy for everyday Americans is taking place. Both Congress and the Trump administration should take note of the countless stories that are punching holes in the false narrative of a prosperous American economy.
One example Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) cited in his official response to President Trump’s Oval Office address was that of a federal worker and single mother who had just $100 left in her account, unable to make her car payment for the coming month. The U.S. Coast Guard, which is funded through the Department of Homeland Security, is unable to pay thousands of Guardsmen, whose families are counting on that check to pay their bills. A recent memo suggested unpaid Guardsmen have garage sales and do odd jobs, like babysitting, in order to meet their monthly obligations while the government remains shut down.
While these examples are ones that have gotten coverage in the news, the daily reality of millions of working-class Americans goes largely unnoticed by media networks whenever a new jobs report shows a modest decrease in the unemployment rate and anemic growth in predominantly low-wage job sectors like food service and retail. But actually, nearly eight in 10 Americans live check to check, according to a 2018 Guardian column by former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich:
The typical American worker now earns around $44,500 a year, not much more than what the typical worker earned in 40 years ago, adjusted for inflation. Although the US economy continues to grow, most of the gains have been going to a relatively few top executives of large companies, financiers, and inventors and owners of digital devices.
…Not even the current low rate of unemployment is forcing employers to raise wages. Contrast this with the late 1990s, the last time unemployment dipped close to where it is today, when the portion of national income going into wages was 3% points higher than it is today.
The wage stagnation Reich wrote about means most Americans’ wages go toward meeting basic needs, with little left for savings. 40 percent of Americans don’t even have enough in savings to account for a $400 emergency without having to sell some of their possessions or go into debt, according to the Federal Reserve Board. Many federal employees are in that same boat.
During the second week of the government shutdown, CNBC interviewed Doreen Greenwald, an IRS worker who was struggling to figure out how to keep her mortgage paid while her agency was shut down. Greenwald was, at the time of the interview, looking for a part-time retail job to earn extra money so she could keep her home.
“Mortgage companies don’t accept an IOU,” Greenwald said. “I have small savings, but it’s not going to make a difference in this mess.”
The daily struggle faced by millions of working-class Americans has been largely absent from media coverage of U.S. economic performance. At the end of 2017, for example, when the stock market was rallying from the Republican tax cuts and record-breaking corporate profits, the media largely focused on the Dow Jones’ 71st record closing rather than the fact that less than 20 percent of Americans even have money in the stock market to begin with.
Hopefully, the federal government shutdown will be over soon and Americans can get back to work. But it’s important for the conversation about how the vast majority of American workers have been largely excluded from the economy’s gains to continue. After reopening the government, Congress needs to address the very real crisis of stagnant wages, rather than President Trump’s manufactured crisis at the border.
Shara Smith is publisher of Grit Post. She writes about politics, economics, and social justice issues. Her background is in communications and management. She founded Grit Post after a long career in academia and the nonprofit sector. Follow her on Twitter @writershara or email her at info AT gritpost DOT com.