As the government shutdown continues into its 21st day, thousands of federal workers are struggling to make ends meet after missing their first paycheck Friday. But the shutdown highlights an economic reality for many Americans, federal workers or not, who live paycheck to paycheck.
Many federal employees are currently trying to figure out how they’ll pay for rent, daycare, car payments, and other bills that will hit them at the middle of this month. About 4,500 federal workers and federal contractors, the latter of whom will not receive backpay, have already filed for unemployment, according to Washington, D.C.’s city government estimate. They’re also preparing to take out loans, looking for part-time work, and considering asking family for support.
Most Americans understand how crucial it is that they receive their regular paycheck, however. A 2017 CareerBuilder report that polled 2,000 managers and more than 3,000 full-time employees found that 78 percent of full-time workers said they lived paycheck to paycheck. Many Americans don’t have the funds to deal with unexpected expenses, as many federal workers are doing this month. Forty percent of adults said that if they had to take on a $400 unexpected expense they would either have to sell things or borrow money, or not be able to pay at all, according to a 2017 Federal Reserve report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households.
Despite the 3.9 percent unemployment rate, stagnant wages and fading job benefits have affected workers’ larger financial picture. Some economists say the federal minimum wage of $7.25 is too low. Despite productivity roughly doubling since 1968, workers who are paid the federal minimum wage now make 25 percent less than workers making the federal minimum wage in 1968, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s 2018 analysis on the subject. The average American’s salary is not much of an improvement over what Americans made four decades ago, when you adjust for inflation, explained Robert Reich, professor of public policy at University of California, Berkeley, and Secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration.
Many Americans are struggling to cover their expenses, according to recent research from Oxford Economics that analyzed American spending patterns. Sixty percent of earners were drawing on savings to maintain their lifestyles. Childcare expenses, which amount to an average of $8,600 annually, rising health care expenses, and student debt also weigh on families. The burden of student debt on Americans will only continue to affect people’s ability to experience financial growth over the course of their lives. Researchers at the Brookings Institution say that by 2023, about 40 percent of borrowers may default on student loans, and debt and default rates among Black college students is already at crisis levels. A recent Federal Reserve study found that greater student loan debt is responsible for people delaying decisions about marriage and children and decreases the possibility of people owning a home.
There are a few reasons why wages haven’t risen faster, including the decisions businesses make when only fewer of them have control over the labor market. A 2017 study by the University of Pennsylvania, the Roosevelt Institute, and IESE Business School, showed that a labor market monopsony, or when a few firms dominate hiring in the market, results in declining worker wages. To make matters worse, the federal government has not been watchful of how employment or other non-competition issues factor in their antitrust analysis. There are also other factors involved in a lack of a substantive rise in wages, such as workers being less likely to move, people switching jobs at a lower rate, and declines in unions.
Meanwhile, the extremely wealthy have been experiencing income and wealth boosts for decades. While salaries for the average American and the minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, have barely budged, the top 0.1 and top 0.01 percent experienced considerable growth in wealth after 1980. Oxfam, a nonprofit focusing on the alleviation of global poverty, released a study showing that 82 percent of global wealth went to only 1 percent of the world’s population.
Americans will surely struggle this week as President Donald Trump, who was born into wealth and has the wealthiest cabinet in U.S. history, allows this shutdown, over a manufactured border security crisis, to become the longest in U.S. history in order to fulfill a racist agenda.