The New Safety Net is US

As I write this, we’re in the midst of the longest government shutdown in US history. It’s day 32 of a political impasse that has resulted in 800,00 Americans being furloughed from their government jobs, which means these individuals are still employed and working – but they aren’t getting paid. This month, tens of thousands of families will be unable to pay the rent or mortgage, buy groceries, put gas in the car, or purchase much of anything else that most of us consider essential to basic daily life. To use the language from the American Federation of Government Employees’ lawsuit, the requirement to work without pay is “nothing short of inhumane.”

So, what are furloughed workers to do?

Coast Guard employees are one furloughed group that’s been particularly hard hit. Unlike most branches of the military that fall under the purview of the Department of Defense, which is not yet affected by the shutdown, the USCG is part of the furlough-hit Department of Homeland Security, and so employee pay has been docked, despite enlisted and civilian workers still working. A few days ago, the Coast Guard Support office posted a tone-deaf five-page document titled “Managing Your Finances During a Furlough.” Among the inane suggestions made to help make ends meet are: babysitting, having a garage sale, becoming a pet walker or working as a “mystery shopper” (whatever that means). The document warns against turning to credit cards for financial support (which is exactly what most furloughed workers are being forced to do) and it ends with tips on how to avoid bankruptcy. Really? This is the practical support you offer your employees when they’re working but not being paid?

Additionally, TSA (Travel Safety Administration) employees have been tasked with staying on the job and keeping air travelers safe and on time, despite the fact that they haven’t been paid since before Christmas. This group of US workers will also have trouble meeting their basic monthly expenses, and the stress caused by the economic insecurity they’re being forced to endure will, undoubtedly, affect their job performance.

These are just two examples of so many types of federal and civilian employees who are being adversely affected by this devastating “shutdown.”

To avoid losing necessities, like heat, water, or gas, and risking eviction, foreclosure, or bankruptcy, people are turning to each other for help. An article in The Guardian published a few days ago estimates that more than 1,000 furloughed workers are seeking economic support via online crowdfunding websites — and this number will likely grow as the shutdown wears on.

I am the founder of an online crowdsupport platform, which was created to put people in need with those in their communities who can help and support them during times of hardship. To be clear, neither me nor my company cares if your state is red or blue, which network you watch, or who you blame for the shutdown. I am not a political expert, however, what’s galling to me, as a CEO and as an American is that the government – our government – which for the past seventy-five years has provided social safety nets for those of us in financial need, is now betraying the trust and tax dollars of the very people it is meant to protect: hard working American citizens.

What I want to focus on is how this kind of “paycheck to crisis” cycle is the new normal for millions of working class Americans, and not just those suffering due to this government shutdown. What this crisis highlights is how the safety nets we’ve relied on since the days of Roosevelt’s New Deal are being torn to shreds by current lawmakers.

The facts are startling: even if your employer offers you health insurance, premiums and out of pocket costs are so high that many Americans cannot pay these preliminary medical costs—never mind the bills that come after treatment.

A recent Federal Reserve Survey found that nearly half of Americans would not be able to come up with $400 in an emergency—and this includes those of us who are getting paid on a regular basis.

It’s becoming clear that “economic insecurity,” a term that used to be associated with the working poor, now encompasses the daily experiences of the American middle class, too.

This is why we’ve begun turning to one another for the kind of support we used to get, in part, from our employers, and in part via government programs, back when our government believed that clean water, adequate food, safe housing, and quality medical care (via reasonably priced health insurance) should be available to all.

Those days are long gone and now we must rely on our family, friends—and even the goodwill and moral outrage of strangers—to make sure that our basic needs are met. This is where we become “by the people, for the people,” in very practical and profound ways.

One could say that there is no silver-lining to the fact that, despite historically low levels of unemployment we, as a nation, are struggling to make ends meet, but there is one and, I think it’s an important one: finally, we’re sharing our vulnerabilities and our needs with one another without so much shame, due to our very real and necessary common purpose, which is to help each other stay afloat.

What this means is this: I am your safety net, and you are mine. And I don’t know anyone who isn’t on board with that…

Nicholas Emerson,
Founder & CEO of Supportful.com

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