Monday, January 7, 2019

The human costs of the current shutdown

My column in today's issue of the Grand Haven Tribune.

When many people are asked to think of those who work in the federal government, the first thing that comes to mind are those elected to serve in the federal government. So when a government shutdown occurs, people often do not realize the massive pain that it causes among the actual average civil servant.

The average federal worker earns $51,340 per year. That’s a pretty good middle-class salary, but that’s by no means a guarantor of financial security when you are all of the sudden forced to go without a paycheck. And there are many federal workers who don’t make that much and are even still required to work.

Workers in the Transportation Security Information have a starting pay of around $16 per hour and an average salary of just over $40,000 per year. However, under government shutdown rules, they are required to work even though they will not receive pay.

All told, there are 800,000 federal workers who are currently not being paid. That’s 800,000 people who do not know when they will receive their next paycheck. There is no indication that the government is reopening anytime soon, and so the anxiety is only growing among these dedicated civil servants.

And, make no mistake, that’s what the average federal employee is — a person who has chosen to work in the government even though they would often make more money in the private sector. However, these people have a passion for the common good and so serve our country in a variety of agencies.

During my first two years of ordained ministry, I served in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. Our parish was filled with federal employees and I found them to be some of the most sacrificial, dedicated and committed people I had ever met.

The average American has less than $4,000 in savings and 57 percent of all Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. And yet, for each of these federal employees, there are mortgages and rent that are due every month. There are groceries to buy and utility bills to pay. The Office of Personnel Management has sent out sample letters employees can use to send to landlords and creditors asking for leniency during this shutdown, but those letters will rely on the goodwill of those who receive them.

In the 1981 government shutdown, President Ronald Reagan (a strong opponent of government unions) acknowledged the “temporary hardship” the shutdown would have on workers. In 2013, when the government was shut down under President Barack Obama, he wrote an open letter to those affected: “None of this is fair to you,” he wrote, adding, “You and your families remain at the front of my mind.”

However, President Donald Trump has yet to say anything publicly that acknowledges the massive hardship this shutdown is on federal employees. The closest he came was a tweet last week when we wrote, “Do the Dems realize that most of the people not getting paid are Democrats?” Aside from being an entirely unproven claim, his tweet also betrays a partisan disregard for the human cost of not getting a paycheck.

Some may argue that Congress should cave into the president’s demands for $5 billion for a border wall, that the cost that is being born by federal employees is worth that agreement. But let’s be clear, the president is holding the livelihood of 800,000 people hostage so that he can get this wall, and 56 percent of Americans oppose the border wall and even more than that (58 percent) believe Trump should withdraw his demand for wall spending.

One of the most common ways undocumented immigrants enter our country is actually with a legal visa at a legal port of entry. They then overstay their legal visa. Ironically enough, the Cato Institute has found that as the amount of border fencing increases, the number of people entering the country legally and then overstaying illegally also increases. That is, the increase in border fencing has only changed the manner in which people enter our country illegally.

Furthermore, border fencing has had the unintended impact of making it harder for undocumented immigrants to return home. In 1996, when our country’s experiment with border fencing was just beginning, University of Pennsylvania sociologist Douglas Massey found that the majority of those who entered our country illegally would leave within one year. Thirteen years later, with triple the number of border agents and 650 miles of barrier, the likelihood of leaving within one year had dropped to almost nothing.

So, our president is holding the livelihood of 800,000 federal employees hostage for a border security plan that will not actually work. The money he wants to spend on a border wall could instead be spent on increasing funding for our overflowing immigration courts, it could be spent on all kinds of areas which would actually have a positive impact upon immigration reform on our country.

A compromise of some sort must be reached. A great compromise — one that would actually appeal to a majority of our country — would be a return to the offer that was on the table last year: funding the wall in exchange for protection for dreamers, those in our country who were brought here as children. But the president has rejected even that offer yet again because he says it would make him look foolish.

The dedicated civil servants in our country deserve better than to be held hostage over a policy proposal that studies have shown is unhelpful and that a majority of our country oppose.

And immigrants to our country — both those who come legally and those who come without documentation, fleeing violence and poverty — deserve better than being used as chips to appeal to a right-wing nationalist base.

We, as Americans, can do better than this. We must do better than this.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at