A Paycheck Away from Financial Catastrophe

By Anne Price, President

Two weeks ago, following the longest government shutdown in U.S history, hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors headed back to work after going 35 days without pay. For some employees relief will come in the form of a paycheck and back pay, however, many federal contractors (almost 2 million of whom earn less than $12 an hour) may not get paid for the days they lost.

This latest government shutdown brings to the forefront what so many American workers feel everyday, even some of those who are in the middle or upper middle class. Too many among us are just a missed paycheck or two from financial catastrophe.

The devastating effects of disrupted income were felt by most federal workers, but were even more painful for the nearly half of federal workers who are sole earners, and the close to 40% who have children. Financial hardship is also experienced by Black and Latino workers who make up nearly 20% and 9% of the federal workforce, respectively, and are often on the low end of the government pay scale.

Some workers took to Twitter under the #shutdownstories hashtag to share their stories of hardship and strategies for survival during the furlough. We learned about their decisions to forgo doctor’s appointments, cut back on critical medication, skip meals, rely on food banks, launch GoFundMe campaigns to cover basic expenses, borrow money from friends and family, deplete savings, and dip into retirement accounts just to scrape by.

Yet these are not extraordinary measures — in fact, these strategies have become all too commonplace among everyday workers who experience an economic shock due to an employer suddenly changing or cutting shifts or hours, or unexpected layoffs.

The reality is that, for most Americans, economic stability is built on a house of cards that can quickly crumble when income is cut. Within the course of a year, a majority of Americans experience some kind of financial shock, but lack a financial buffer to cope with it. According to a 2015 Pew Charitable Trust Survey, 60% of Americans experienced an economic shock in the previous year.

It is estimated that just over $7,000 is owed to furloughed workers on average, an amount that far exceeds the shock that most families can manage. The typical household who earns $25,000 has enough saved to replace only 6 days of lost income, but there are stark differences by race and ethnicity.

The typical white household has slightly more than 1 month income in liquid savings to weather a financial shock, in sharp contrast to 12 days for the typical Latinx household and 5 days for the typical Black household. Moreover, Black workers typically have less than $5 if they liquidate all of their financial assets, compared to $199 and $3,000 for the poorest 25% of Latinx and white households, respectively.

The economic woes experienced by many federal workers and contractors will not go away because the shutdown is over. Quite the contrary. We need a new economic vision and viable, actionable policies to free Americans from the torment of financial anxiety. We need policies that address the precarity of work, set up protections that help people weather unforeseen upheavals, build up wealth and promote social freedoms, and prioritize the wellbeing of ordinary Americans, rather than the interests of the the super rich.