The day before the government shutdown, Louis Lin (C ‘20) updated his voicemail:
“Due to a lapse in appropriations, I am unavailable to answer your call for the duration of the government shutdown. Please leave a message and I will respond once we return to normal operation.”
As a Management and Program Analyst at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Louis isn’t just a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also a part–time federal employee. And when the longest government shutdown in United States history began on Dec. 22, 2018, the FAA was part of one of the nine federal departments that went unfunded. Suddenly, Louis was furloughed—prevented from working, and going without pay.
On Jan. 25, President Trump announced he would temporarily reopen the government until Feb. 15. But during the shutdown, what Penn Political Science professor Marc Meredith calls a “unique distrust between Trump and Congressional Democrats” led approximately 420,000 federal employees to work without pay and another 380,000 to be furloughed. For 35 days, thousands of lives—including some of those within the Penn community—hung in the balance. From financial struggles to grant difficulties, the effects of the shutdown linger at Penn, and the stories left in its wake highlight what happens when the country’s leaders close their doors.
A Waiting Game
An electric skateboard propped up next to his legs, Louis talks with an easy smile across his face. His demeanor is surprisingly optimistic, considering this interview takes place in the midst of the shutdown. Because of his furlough, Louis missed two paychecks. “Earlier this year we had a shutdown that was three days, so [I thought] this won’t matter,” notes Louis, as incongruous coffee shop jazz plays in the background. “And then the days went on and on … I started thinking about how I’ll actually be missing full–on paychecks. I missed a good amount of money that would’ve gone to my food or my bills or things like that.”
Although Louis comes from a first–generation, low–income background, he recognizes that he was in a better place than most, having saved up since he started working months ago. “I don’t have children to support or things like a mortgage to pay. As of now I do have enough money."
Lauren Snyder’s (N ’21) father is a federal employee who worked without pay during the shutdown. Due to privacy concerns, details about Lauren's father's job have been omitted. Although Lauren’s on–campus job covered her personal costs, her family worried about expenses such as her tuition and their mortgage. They were vulnerable to sudden expenses and stuck to a “very fixed amount” of spending.
Like Louis, Lauren recognizes the struggles of federal employees living paycheck to paycheck. “I [wasn’t] in the worst position. My family is fortunate for sure,” she qualifies. Even so, “it’s frustrating because we still have to go about our daily life, and we still have to pay our bills, but without income.”
For Louis and Lauren, the shutdown was a waiting game with personal stakes. With Louis describing its seemingly infinite nature as a “looming cloud,” he felt helpless to do anything aside from wait for congressional action.
In the days leading up to Trump's surprising announcement, “the people who have been out of work for days [are getting their] lives back to normal,” Louis says, but from bill payments to back pay processing, “there are obviously still ramifications of what happened.” As he notes, “the bill that was passed is only for 21 days ... we just have to see what happens.”
Not Just The Paychecks
The happenings on Capitol Hill can affect Penn in multiple ways. Many federal agencies that issue research grants to universities went unfunded because of the shutdown. Meredith explains that “while Penn is a private university, it relies a lot on governmental grants to pay for its expenses. Penn's bottom line [would] definitely be affected if federal agencies like the National Science Foundation shut down for an extended period of time.”
Due to issues funding the Department of Agriculture, recipients of the federal food stamp program, SNAP, received February benefits early, but the program would’ve paused in March. Aside from the budgetary problems associated with stretching benefits more than a month, the uncertainty with SNAP’s funding would have placed stress on food–insecure Penn students who rely on food stamps to eat.
The current cohort of students studying in Washington, D.C. with the Penn in Washington program largely escaped the worst of the shutdown’s impact, with only one State Department student intern unable to work.
However, Penn in Washington Executive Director and Political Science lecturer Deirdre Martinez speaks of the shutdown’s grim, constant presence in her students’ lives. “They are certainly seeing on a daily basis the impact that this [had] on a lot of people,” she says.
The effects of this historic government shutdown have rippled across the United States, but indifference still seems to envelop campus.
“I’m always a person that thinks that people should be conscious of what’s going on. But I also know that Penn students are busy. If something isn’t going to affect them directly, it might not be something that they actually worry about,” Louis notes.
Similarly, Lauren brings up the ways talk of the shutdown often elicits forced, uncomfortable pity. “Every time I [told] someone that my dad’s not getting paid, they all [had] this same look of sympathy. They’re like ‘Oh, I’m so sorry ... that really sucks.’" Because politics is concerned, she says that “it’s kind of an awkward conversation to bring up.”
With two government shutdowns in 2018 alone, it’s easy to grow apathetic and downplay their consequences. Louis, Lauren’s father, and the 800,000 other federal employees furloughed or working without pay are all guaranteed back pay now that the government is open. However, it’s clear that back pay doesn’t make up for the massive stress government closure placed on all affected. For Penn–affiliated students, families, or staff who rely on steady paychecks, the shutdown meant missed rent or mortgage payments, food insecurity, or struggles to pay tuition. Loss of research grants, missed career opportunities, travel issues, and more could have characterized it for the rest.
Penn isn’t insulated from national politics. As Meredith states, the Penn community should take advantage of its ability to impact the government. “If the Senate felt pressure to vote on something that both parties could tolerate, the shutdown [would’ve been] over immediately,” he explained.
Although the shutdown has ended, these statements ring true for student political participation in general. Within Philadelphia, Penn's School of Dental Medicine took on an active role by offering free emergency care for furloughed government workers. As Philadelphia has one of the highest concentrations of government workers in the country, such a gesture is powerful.
“If anything, I hope that this makes people more cognizant of the real effects of who you vote for, how you contact your Congress members, or who you end up talking about issues with,” says Louis.
Still, calling your representative can only do so much. Ultimately, it's up to lawmakers to fix this problem. Louis adds, “I value the work of federal employees. If you’re doing work, I think that you should be getting paid for it.”
Capitol Hill may seem far removed from campus. For some students, the government shutdown meant no more than longer TSA checks and an onslaught of news alerts on their phones. But for others—people affiliated with Penn, people we know—the effects of the longest shutdown in government history will linger for longer than 35 days.
Srinidhi Ramakrishna is a freshman in the College from Montgomery, New Jersey. She is a features staff writer for Street.