The odds of a government shutdown are increasingly likely. As Republicans and Democrats find themselves at an impasse on immigration, the hope of a deal by midnight Friday to fund the government is fading fast.
A shutdown won’t really affect the politicians responsible for it — members of Congress, after all, keep getting paid when the government shuts down.
But what the 2013 government shutdown showed us is that some Americans really do suffer — specifically poor kids in the Head Start program; military families; and janitors, security guards and other low-wage federal contractors.
It’s hard to grasp how many programs and services across the country rely on funding from the annual spending bill that Congress passes. But in October 2013, more than 850,000 federal workers were furloughed for the 16-day shutdown, affecting services for all Americans in all 50 states. Only “essential” government employees were allowed to work: anyone whose job is a matter of life and death or an urgent public safety matter.
There’s no evidence anyone died as a result of the 2013 shutdown, though as Tom Frieden, the former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Vox, “In practice it’s certainly possible. We didn’t have our systems fully up and running to assess that.”
But we do know it hurt many Americans who depend on services funded by the appropriations bill. Here are three groups of Americans who lost, and are likely to lose again if the government shuts down on Friday.
Low-income kids in Head Start
More than 6,300 low-income kids in six states couldn’t attend their federally funded Head Start preschools during the 2013 shutdown, according to a White House report. These Head Start centers, which rely largely on federal money, teach children early learning skills to help them succeed in kindergarten. They also provide kids with meals and health care services.
The centers that relied on fall funding in 2013 closed during the shutdown because they didn’t get grants to pay employees. The schools that shut down were in Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
The director of an Alabama Head Start program serving 770 kids said parents were frantic about where to take their kids so they could work. Dora Jones, the director of Cheaha Regional Head Start in Talladega, Alabama, said many had no other option.
“Our biggest concern here is that they’re gonna leave these children in unsafe settings, unlicensed home care facilities or some of them may even leave children at home,” she told NPR at the time.
Eventually, philanthropists reopened the schools with donations to the National Head Start Association. But some didn’t open their doors for nine days.
Military families and veterans
Perhaps no group of Americans was impacted by the shutdown as much as military veterans and families. The federal government provides a ton of services to them —everything from health care to education, housing, recreation, and subsidized groceries.
Military hospitals and clinics mostly stayed open, and veterans could still call crisis hotlines. But a lot of other important programs were suddenly out of reach. Military veterans couldn’t get education counseling or job training help. No one answered the information hotline for questions about military benefits. The VA stopped processing disability claims, adding to the backlog of about 418,000 claims.
Active-duty service members and their families also got screwed. Subsidized grocery stores on US military bases — known as commissaries — closed down for at least a week.
Relatives of service members who died couldn’t immediately get money for their funerals. The Department of Defense stopped processing the $100,000 death benefit that was usually sent to grieving families within 48 hours.
Many child care centers on military bases also closed, forcing working military spouses to stay home or scramble to find backup care. And soldiers and their families had to reschedule non-emergency surgeries at several military hospitals.
Low-wage federal contractors
More than 850,000 federal workers who were furloughed during the shutdown eventually got repaid. But most of the janitors, security guards, and cafeteria servers who work in federal buildings didn’t.
More than 700 janitors and security guards and 500 food service workers were unable to work in the Washington, DC, area during the shutdown, according to the Washington Post.
The head of a local janitorial company told the Post at the time that 100 employees who cleaned the Labor and Justice Departments couldn’t work. It ended up costing his company $80,000.
“We were told just to bill for the services we provided,” said Larry Westfall, vice president of R&R Janitorial Painting & Building Services. “The government did not pay us, and we could not pay our workers.”
Several workers had to take part-time jobs to pay their bills.
Another shutdown would likely hurt these groups again
It’s unclear whether a government shutdown today would have the same impact it did five years ago. But it would likely be similar. These services and contracts still depend on funding from the annual appropriations bill —they are not mandatory spending programs like Medicaid and Social Security, which are automatically paid for.
That means that Congress may continue to disrupt the lives of military families, poor children, and low-wage workers. All in the name of American politics.