U.S. Government Shutdown: How It Hurts Women

Have you ever had a migraine? There’s a lot of suffering, you don’t know how long it’s going to last, and despite your best efforts nothing seems to make it better. Then it lifts and the lack of pain almost feels like pleasure. There is a moment of intense relief. Until you remember that it could come back at any time. That’s what this U.S. Federal Government shutdown reminds me of.

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On December 21, 2018 the government failed to finalize a budget for 2019. The budget, originally proposed by the President has to be agreed on by both the House of Representatives and the Senate before it goes back to the President for approval. If any of this doesn’t happen then the U.S. government doesn’t have a budget. The budget for the U.S. Federal government isn’t like your budget for your monthly spending. It isn’t just a plan for how to spend (that’s what the President originally proposes), it is the law that allows departments to spend (that’s what Congress makes a law). It doesn’t matter that there is money from taxes coming in—we aren’t permitted by law to spend it and so the government “shuts down.” While this is serious, it’s not quite as scary as it sounds. There are parts of the government budget that are automatically approved as part of a “mandatory budget” like Medicare and Social Security.

The consequences of the government shutdown are widely varied. The most direct consequence is that roughly 400,000 essential federal employees were working without pay. In addition, roughly 400,000 federal employees were sent home without pay. Congress had to pass legislation ensure all these workers would receive back pay when the government reopened but the shutdown was the longest in U.S. history, lasting 35 days. That’s a long time to go without a paycheck.

However unfair it is that employees weren’t getting paid, there are other far reaching consequences of the government shutdown, many of them disproportionally hurting women.

National Parks:

National Parks, a huge draw for tourism, are either already shut down or at risk for being shut down without notice. If people can’t be sure they will get to enjoy the parks, they are less likely to schedule a trip to that area. This decreases tourism for a large number of areas and consequently impacts the economics of the area. Decreases in tourism disproportionally hurt women who make up more than half of the hospitality workforce and the restaurant industry. Most people reading this have probably worked in food service at some point in their lives. Imagine that the number of people coming into your restaurant plummeted for 35 days. What does that do to your ability to pay your bills and feed your children? While there were reports of companies offering free goods and services to furloughed government employees during the shutdown, I heard of no programs for the service workers who were affected with no hope of back pay for their loss in income.

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(my brother, father, and me at Yosemite National Park)

Research and public health:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was furloughed which disrupts environmental regulations and research on environmental issues. If you aren’t already convinced that the environment is a women’s issue, let me remind you that even just in the U.S. these issues hurt women more than men. This is mostly because environmental issues disproportionately affect poor people and women are more likely to be poor: the 2014, poverty rate for women and girls was 16% poverty rate for females compared to 13% for males. Low-income communities have higher rates of health issues which are often caused or exacerbated by environmental issues. Companies producing significant pollution typically set up their harmful operations in low-income neighborhoods. So when our regulating departments aren’t able to operate, it is women (and children) who suffer most.

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The EPA is also responsible for research into environmental consequences including health and wellbeing. There are consequences to human health—like reproductive health—that we don’t fully understand. EPA research could potentially clarify the risks of exposure to certain chemicals or pollutants, among other things. That research can’t happen during a shutdown. While some research can be picked back up without any consequence but delay, other research has time sensitive elements and 35 days without attention can destroy it.

Violence Against Women Act:

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) expired on December 21, 2018 when the government shut down. The act offers funding for non-profits that provide education about domestic violence and violence against women or services for women who have been victims of violence. Previous funding approved or allocated through this act was distributed but no new funding requests for programs could be processed. Shelters that offer an option for women escaping domestic abuse are at risk. Educational programs for women on what constitutes domestic violence and how to get help escaping it are at risk. Training for police on how to protect women from violence are at risk. Considering what we know about rape culture and violence against women in the United States, it is clear that any limitation of funding to eradicate it is a significant issue for women.

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On January 25, 2019 a stop-gap budget was agreed on allowing spending until February 15, 2019. This allows normal government operations to start again but only to buy more time to come up with a full budget. If there isn’t agreement on a full budget by February 15, Congress and the President will need to agree on another temporary budget or the government will shut down again. There has been a lot of speculation about all the ways this might play out with Trump demanding money for his border wall and Democrats refusing to consider it. For now, I’m just going to be relieved that this headache is over, even if it might come back in three weeks.  


Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist

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