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Government shutdown: understanding the impact on BHS families

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by Emily McNichols

Just nine days before the start of a new year, President Trump shut down the United States government, causing a painful start to 2019 for many Americans. Hundreds of thousands of citizens, including students and families at Burlington High School (BHS) were affected.  The thirty-four day-long shutdown is the longest government shutdown in history, and although Congress reached a deal to temporarily reopen the government on January 25, 2019, the shutdown could recommence in three weeks.

When the government is shut down, Congress requires some departments to remain open. Workers in open departments must work without pay. Departments deemed nonessential close; those workers are furloughed without pay. An estimate of 800,000 federal employees were affected by the shutdown.

Will Belluche, a BHS sophomore, whose father is the Director of Logistics for the Vermont National Guard, saw the stressful effects of the shutdown on his father.

“The work is building up because no one is working,” Belluche said. “He doesn’t know when he’s going to work. Everyone asks him what’s going on but no one really knows.”

Belluche’s father was on paid leave, but many federal workers were furloughed, meaning they were put on unpaid leave until the shutdown ended.

“[There’s] a lot of stress on the family because we’re not making any money,” Eva Tobias, a BHS sophomore said. Her father was furloughed.

Tobias’ family had to weigh the importance of gas money and food choices while her mother was the family’s only source of income during the shutdown. Tobias said that even though they had to budget, her family has become more aware of the impacts that the shutdown had and she is grateful that her family still had income.

“You survive but nobody gets to have any fun,” Scott Tobias, Eva Tobias’ father, said. “Kids can’t go to summer camp. Sorry, no summer camp. You need reading classes? Sorry, no reading classes. Vacation? Sorry, no vacation.”

Families whom rely on food stamps and federal support were extremely vulnerable during the shutdown. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which funds food stamps, was closed. Due to the shutdown, food stamps were given out mid-January instead of the beginning of February and recipients had to make them last for at least six weeks instead of four.

“There have been some challenges for people who have been receiving some of their food stamps and other cash benefits,” Josh Edelbaum, the social worker at BHS, said. “For people who rely upon [food stamps and cash benefits] and have no other sources of income, no savings, no support network of any other kind to even have a delay of a few days or a few weeks can be devastating.”

Burlington School District (BSD) Food Service was still able to provide free or reduced-cost meals to qualifying students; about 50-55% of BSD families.

“No children should be hungry,” Doug Davis, the Food Services Director of the BSD, said.

This program is also funded by USDA, and while it has back up funds in the case of natural disasters, it was not prepared for this extended shutdown.

“It’s difficult when politics are getting in the way,” Davis said. “The shutdown was avoidable but it happened.”

Davis believes that hunger can be embarrassing for students and feared that students would not seek support when they needed it, especially if it is a new struggle for them. According to him, not getting food means a lack of motivation to learn. There will be the stress of not knowing where the next meal will come from, and students may skip or drop out of school in order to have food.

“All of this is tied together,” Davis said.

For new Americans coming as refugees, the shutdown impacted their ability to start new lives.

“Now there’s a lot of support that is no longer there,” Edelbaum said. “In the beginning, people received money for food, money for rent and there were ways to help people get started while they look for work, learn the language, and that sort of thing.”

Unpaid and furloughed workers lost a month’s worth of income.  While Congress passed a bill that guarantees back pay to furloughed workers, when that will happen is uncertain.  And government contractors may not see any compensation.

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that the adults in power hold people’s lives in the balance as they try to sort out very important things that need to be discussed,” Edelbaum said.  “People are having to consider whether they quit their jobs. People are not able to pay their bills. People are not able to buy food.

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