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Shutdown Exposes How Many Americans Live Paycheck to Paycheck

Financially speaking, most of us are sprinting to stand still.

People line up to get a free lunch at a pop-up eatery for furloughed government employees and their families, on January 16, 2019, in Washington, DC.

Today marks the two-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration, and we have learned some hard lessons in the interval. The ongoing, historically unprecedented shutdown of the federal government has exposed Trump as one of the worst deal-makers ever to stand up in two shoes.

It has further exposed the Republican Party’s bottomless disdain for marginalized people through its craven refusal to contain the man who has unleashed all this misery. It has exposed deep fissures in Trump’s once-unbreakable base as more and more of his supporters — battered by tariffs and now the shutdown — come to correctly believe they’ve been played for chumps.

The shutdown has exposed something else far more personal and uncomfortable, something most folks don’t like to talk about because it is too frightening to contemplate, something they can’t see an easy way to fix. It is this simple, terrible truth: A great many people in the US are one missed paycheck away from complete financial calamity.

This has proven true for many of the federal workers and contractors furloughed by the shutdown. The end of the month is less than two weeks away, and those furloughed workers will collectively owe more than $400 million in mortgage and rent payments, to say nothing of utility bills and child care expenses. Throw in food and gasoline, and the math becomes grim in a big hurry.

This crisis is not limited to furloughed federal workers, however. According to a report by Forbes Magazine, a full 78 percent of all US workers are living paycheck to paycheck. One quarter of workers are financially unable to set aside any money for savings after each pay cycle. Three quarters of workers are in debt, and half of those believe they always will be. Most minimum wage workers are required to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

“What do professors, real estate agents, farmers, business executives, computer programmers and store clerks have in common? They’re not immune to the harsh reality of living paycheck to paycheck,” reports Danielle Paquette for The Washington Post. “They’re millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers. They work in big cities and rural towns. They’ve tried to save — but rent, child care, student loans and medical bills get in the way.”

The situation becomes more concerning when considering the average worker’s inability to financially cope with an injury, emergency or turn of bad luck. “Can you cover an unexpected $400 expense?” asks Anna Bahney of CNN. “Four in ten Americans can’t, according to a new report from the Federal Reserve Board. Those who don’t have the cash on hand say they’d have to cover it by borrowing or selling something.”

And it’s all a great big secret, a problem most people struggle with but seldom discuss, because we have been trained to be embarrassed about such things. This is the greatest country in the world! With the greatest economy! Rugged individuals and bootstraps! If we are failing to amass a personal fortune, it’s because of our own inherent laziness or lack of incentive. Shame on us, right?


This situation has been created by decades of Reagan-born trickle-down capitalism and the moral cowardice of bought politicians of every stripe. These unbalanced economic policies favor the wealthy and shun the rest with deprecating propaganda that parks the fault for financial struggle squarely on the shoulders of the very workers who have been taken advantage of for generations.

Many millions of people in the US spend their lives sprinting to stand still, financially speaking, desperate to squeeze every ounce of value from a dollar whose purchasing power seems to diminish with each passing year. It’s a damned expensive country to live in, especially if you reside with most of the population on the coasts. We don’t seem to get very much for the money we spend or the hard work we do, and our social safety net is weakening more each day.

It’s a feeling and an experience the Donald Trumps of the world have never known. There you lay, the clock yelling 3 a.m. and you know your alarm is going off in two hours, but you haven’t slept because you have $46 in the bank, no savings to speak of, a fistful of maxed-out credit cards, bills coming every day. You need to eat, need to commute, need medicine and clothes and shoes, and the rent or mortgage is due next week. After paying for all that, you’ll be lucky to still have that $46 left over. Your stomach is a crater inside you, and you lie there, waiting to work another day and maybe break even so long as absolutely nothing goes wrong.

The shutdown has shoved this stark reality in our faces, and it is high time we talked about it instead of pretending it isn’t there or being embarrassed by it. Those furloughed federal workers telling their stories of struggle on the nightly news are part of a huge majority in this country, the kind of super-duper majority that can bring wholesale change virtually overnight if we look each other in the eye and remember that this is not our fault. We are not the ones who have stolen the dream of upward mobility and replaced it with a treadmill, all the while preaching austerity so those who do fall behind have nowhere to turn for help.

We did not create this situation. We are the grist in someone else’s mill. This is what happens when unions are broken, when “right to work” laws are allowed to stand, when the social safety net is stripped, when the minimum wage is stuck in the past and the only important people are the ones who are already flush and can afford to buy some pet politicians to lock down the status quo.

Because it has been this way does not mean it always has to be this way. We did not do this. This was done to us, and we are legion. It is time we remembered that, and acted accordingly.

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