Stephen Booth, an Air Force police officer in Kansas, has six children under 15 to support and has no room in his budget for a missed paycheck.

But like millions of other government workers across the country, Booth is preparing to have his pay suspended indefinitely at the end of the month as Congress heads toward a government shutdown.

House Republicans were unable to reach a compromise within their ranks on Thursday on a new budget, including funding for the Defense Department, and a handful of conservative holdouts called for additional spending cuts. Unless Congress acts, the federal government will be unable to pay its 4 million employees after September 30th.

Stephen Booth. Courtesy of Stephen Booth

That leads Booth, a veteran with nearly two decades of experience in law enforcement and security, to think about how he can get by without pay, such as feeding his family with the meat he gets from hunting, eggs from his chickens and the money he earns from driving for Uber on the side.

“The politicians don’t think about the fact that we’re down here doing the work,” said Booth, who also serves as local liaison for the American Federation of Government Employees, a union that represents federal workers. “Some of us live paycheck to paycheck. You take away a paycheck, how am I supposed to live for the next two weeks? How can I care for my children? How will I care for my wife? And that kind of thinking ultimately leads to some people having bad things going through their minds and some people not getting through it.”

The shutdown comes at a particularly precarious time for many households already struggling with persistent inflation that has driven up the costs of rent, child care, food, transportation and utilities. At the same time, a number of Covid-era benefits have expired, such as the child tax credit, rental assistance and the suspension of student loan payments, which are now set to resume in October. To cope, households have reduced their savings and increased their credit card debt over the past year.

“It really is rice and beans time,” said Amad Ali, a claims specialist at the Social Security Administration in New Albany, Indiana, and president of his local AFGE union. “Most of us are dedicated public servants and we carry on, we carry on, but it’s tough.”

Amad Ali. Courtesy of Amad Ali

Ali, an Iraq War veteran who has worked at the Social Security Administration since 2008, said he has learned to prepare for the possibility of going without pay for weeks. Despite having to support three children through middle school and college, he believes he’ll be able to make ends meet again this time.

In previous closures, workers received back pay as soon as a funding bill was passed, but endured the time between their last check and the arrival of that back pay and I don’t know how long that period might last could be financially overwhelming for some.

“I talk to a lot of our employees and they live paycheck to paycheck. So if we don’t get a paycheck, it’s going to be a very difficult time for people,” Ali said.

While unemployment has remained historically low, economists said a government shutdown lasting more than a month combined with a widening UAW strike and pressure on consumers from inflation and higher interest rates could weigh on the entire U.S. economy.

“One of these things, in my opinion, is not what would push you into a recession, but when you put them all together, it will put a strain on the economy, particularly the small businesses and families that are still recovering,” said Megan Way, an associate professor of economics at Babson College in Massachusetts. “Right now it feels like rubbing salt in the wound because there are so many families who are still getting back on their feet from the pandemic.”

As a single mother of four, Jessica LaPointe, who works as a claims specialist for the Social Security Administration in Madison, Wisconsin, knows she will need help from friends and family to get through a shutdown.

“I’m definitely in a situation where I don’t have a lot of savings. As a single mother, I live paycheck to paycheck for the most part, so I just have to rely on the resources that I have, the support of my family and possibly my friends,” said LaPointe, who is also her local chairman Trade Union Council. “It’s good to know that I’ll get paid at some point. There is a light there, so it only comes through for a short time. But the uncertainty is a cause for concern.”

Jessica LaPointe. Courtesy of Jessica LaPointe

If a shutdown lasts through the end of the year, it could be enough to tip the U.S. into recession, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

“A few weeks, no big deal. A month later it starts showing up with the economic data. Longer term it becomes a real problem and if it continues throughout the quarter it probably means a recession,” Zandi said.

While there have been previous shutdowns in Washington, this one could have a much larger impact because it will involve far more workers than the last shutdown, said Max Stier, director of the nonprofit Public Service Partnership. Congress has not authorized funding for any part of the government, nor has it passed legislation to continue paying military members.

In addition to the 4 million federal workers who would not receive pay during a possible shutdown next month, millions more who work as contractors would also suffer lost wages and could be laid off, Stier said. Then there will be a domino effect on companies that depend on sending these federal employees and contractors. And unlike full-time federal employees, contractors often do not receive reimbursement after a shutdown ends.

A military pay freeze would place a tremendous burden on military families who often already live paycheck to paycheck, said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, who is now president of the Military Officers Association of America. He said his organization has heard growing concern from its members about the impact of a shutdown.

“They sacrifice a lot in operations and maybe in combat and a lot of other things, and they like to do that. But in return, they hope the system will give them back the same commitment and sacrifice,” Kelly said. “If they don’t see that, boy, that certainly undermines a lot of things.”

Across the country, food banks are beginning to prepare for the influx of federal workers seeking help. The Capital Area Food Bank, which serves residents of Washington, D.C. and neighboring suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, estimates that 100,000 federal workers in the area could struggle to afford food during a shutdown given their income and the high cost of living in the D.C region, said the organization’s CEO, Radha Muthiah.

During the last shutdown, the food bank distributed weekly food boxes to about 4,000 households at temporary locations in grocery store parking lots specifically for federal employees. They have also seen an increase in demand from the food banks they work with in the area. A closure would come as the organization is already experiencing demand well above pre-pandemic levels.

“It is a difficult economic and financial time for most families,” Muthiah said. “A shutdown would place incredible strain on a network that has already been running at full speed through three years of the pandemic.”

Federal food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, will be distributed to recipients for the month of October, according to a Department of Agriculture spokesperson. But it’s unclear what would happen to benefits in the longer term if the closure lasts longer than a month, which could put even more strain on food banks.

“There are 330,000 food stamp recipients in our region. If they do not receive their allotment for a whole month, we as supplementary nutrition providers cannot meet this need,” Muthiah said. “If this program were turned off for a month, it would simply be impossible.”

At the Federal Emergency Management Agency, union president Steve Reaves said he worries about the morale of his colleagues who are already under pressure to respond to a growing number of weather-related events. During the last shutdown, he had to dip into his retirement savings to pay his mortgage.

“We experienced a brain drain during the last shutdown where everyone dropped their pensions and a lot of people left. So we had a significant loss last time,” Reaves said. “I would imagine we will have it again if that were a longer period of time. You’re talking about long-term implications for planning and emergency management.”

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