WASHINGTON—As the partial government shutdown puts a financial strain on federal workers, churches and charities in the Washington, D.C., area are helping out with meals and assistance for everyday expenses.
Some 800,000 government employees are either working without pay or not working at all for a fourth week as President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats continue their showdown over funding for a wall along the U.S. southern border. The partial shutdown closed about a quarter of the federal government, including the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Treasury Department, and Smithsonian Institution.
While salaried federal workers will receive back pay once an agreement is reached, bills are starting to pile up, along with uncertainty about when life will return to normal. The strain extends to federal contractors who work for outside companies on behalf of the government and are not guaranteed back pay, along with those paid hourly wages or in other industries, such as restaurants and public transportation, that rely on business from government employees to earn a living.
“I hate to see people suffering when they are surrounded by abundance,” said Mark Bergel, director of A Wider Circle, an anti-poverty group in Montgomery County, Md., an affluent Washington suburb and home to a large share of federal workers. The group has been collecting a shutdown fund and using the money to purchase grocery store gift cards for those out of work.
Bergel said the shutdown most hurt the people who already struggled financially, noting that the majority of American families have only a small financial cushion to dip into during emergencies.
“The people who have the greatest need are often the least represented,” he said. “There’s all kinds of levels of workers in terms of income and savings, so I don’t categorize everyone the same way. Some people might be OK and some might be really hurting.”
Celebrity chef José Andrés, who operates a slew of restaurants in the area and ran in 2017 a large-scale aid operation in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, began serving free lunches in downtown Washington on Wednesday and plans to continue until the government reopens.
Other groups offering help include Bread for the City, a Washington food bank offering groceries and medical care to affected workers, and Manna Food Center, a Montgomery County food bank that waived its income requirements for people to receive assistance in light of the shutdown. Manna has seen a 10 percent increase in demand since last week, the first week federal workers did not receive paychecks, organizers said.
On Saturday, the Washington National Cathedral teamed up with other churches in neighboring Virginia and Maryland to distribute $8,000 worth of grocery baskets to those with federal worker IDs.
“The longer the shutdown goes on, the greater the need gets,” said cathedral spokesman Kevin Eckstrom. —Anne K. Walters