The Beginning of the Spiral

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How to help families affected by the government shutdown (nbc12.com)

I’ve written before about how I believe the greatest work Chris Matthews has ever done on Hardball (not exactly a high hurdle to leap) is a series he did in 2013 called “The Unkindest Cut,” which looked at how ordinary Americans were being devastated by “sequester” cuts in government spending on social services. Sequestration was created as a last-second compromise to avoid Republican brinkmanship on this country making its debt payments, as power-mad conservatives tried to force spending reductions through government by any means possible, and it was allegedly designed to create the ultimate disincentive to further budget impasses between Republicans and Democrats, by creating an alternative to stalemates so odious that neither party would dare risk a round of sequester cuts happening. They did, of course, and the results were so horrible that the whole sequestration mechanisms were done away with soon after.

As much as I appreciated “The Unkindest Cut,” there was one fatal flaw with it: Chris Matthews, and MSNBC as a whole, never went back to visit the families they profiled in that week of programming. The profiles themselves were compelling and enlightening, but by failing to do any follow-up reporting, the series risked giving viewers the impression that the hardships being endured by the profiled people were temporary, and that all their problems would disappear as soon as that round of sequester cuts ended.

The reality for far too many Americans is that any temporary financial setback, even a small one, can quickly explode into total catastrophe. Approximately 62% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, and with average monthly apartment rent costing more than that in many cities, any disruption to most Americans’ income, no matter how small, plants the seed of financial collapse. Even assuming the disruption is short-term, late fees quickly compound (attempts to pay late fees result in overdraft charges from the bank, which then cause people to miss their cell phone bill, and so on) , so that one missed payment or mistake can end up costing thousands of dollars or even more, and may even lead to personal bankruptcy (which, due to these issues appearing on credit reports, may make it impossible to secure personal loans to stave off bankruptcy, let alone other potential necessities like auto loans).

Even though I finally got hired to a full-time teaching position last year, I’m only now getting to that $1,000 savings threshold myself. I wasn’t exactly flush with cash before I came to Wisconsin, and not only did I have to borrow money to get through my first weeks here (I didn’t get paid for the first six weeks I was here), but I’ve also had to spend a good deal of money buying things like kitchen appliances and furniture. I think that I’m done buying that stuff for the moment, but now I’m having to pay for my benefits that just kicked in at the start of the year (this is the first time I’ve had health insurance since I finished grad school), and I’ll probably have to start paying my student loans back later this year. I’m certainly a lot better off right now than I was even six months ago, and tens of millions of Americans are presently enduring far worse financial conditions than mine, but I’m still darn close to running out of money if even a small emergency pops up.

Throughout my professional life, I’ve had to fight the stigma of teaching being a “cushy” job — the oft-repeated untruths and half-truths about guaranteed positions, high salaries for everyone, getting off work at three in the afternoon, having summers off, and all of that — and this is one area where I can definitely empathize with government workers here in America. Thanks to the potent mixture of hate-mongering, attacks on unions, shameless lying, and all the other tactics so endemic in right-wing propaganda, many Americans (conservatives or otherwise) have been led to believe that anyone hired by the government, and thus anyone currently enduring economic hardship as a result of this (or any) government shutdown, can’t really be going through that difficult of a time. (President Trump’s chief economic advisor has even claimed that furloughed government employees are better off now than they would be if they were working, and earning money to pay their bills with, like usual.) All of us who know government workers, whether in our personal and/or professional lives, know that this is far from the case.

As this current government shutdown has stretched into the longest in American history, we’re starting to see stories, both in the news and on the Internet, of the devastation that the shutdown has already wreaked on those Americans, and their families, who can least afford to endure any kind of hardship on top of those they already have to handle on a daily basis. It’s good that these stories are getting out there, but as with “The Unkindest Cut,” these profiles, and the people being profiled, run the risk of being “out of sight, out of mind” before the true measure of how much the shutdown hurt them can even be calculated. (Remember that despite the sequester cuts and the Ted Cruz-led government shutdown in 2013, both events were a practical afterthought as voters went to the polls in the following midterm election, where Republicans posted massive gains.)

If the news networks creating these profiles won’t do the important job of following up with these people months and years into the future (and I doubt MSNBC is going to start doing this work now, especially since they’re still being run by a rich tool for other, richer tools), then it may be up to the rest of us to make sure that these people’s full stories get told to the world. Without an understanding of just how crippling and long-term the damage inflicted on these people truly is, every subsequent shutdown will continue to be seen by Americans as just a temporary hindrance for a chronically-misunderstood fraction of Americans, and not the start of the literal ruination of so many people’s lives.

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