It is almost impossible to be a political scientist with an interest in politics in these United States and not be nearly consumed by what is going on in Washington . . . or not going on. Given the circles in which I run, however, it is nearly as difficult not to be overwhelmed by the personal impact of congressional failure that I see all around me. From students’ families and close friends who are finding themselves without income or without access to certain essential services, the failure of the national government in the world’s strongest democracy cannot be ignored.
Some of my students are children of parents whose income depends, in whole or in part, on federal funding. Whether they work for a federal agency, or for a local government in an office substantially funded by federal dollars, the shutdown has forced belt-tightening and, if the shutdown continues, serious reexamination of their educational futures. I can watch them in the classroom and feel the anxiety that is squeezing out the joy.
Then there is the child of friends of ours, a child who, due to a tragic medical condition, requires essentially round-the-clock care. The parents have worked out the division of income-earning, special care providing, care for their other children, and the mundane matters of living as a family, with the help of federal support for in-home nursing care. It has been incredibly tough, but they are wonderful and heroic people . . . and this is a very precious child.
That carefully crafted and hard-won division of labor disintegrated with word that the federal subsidy that covers the home nursing visits was gone because of the shutdown. The nurses are now seeking other employment (or hoping to ride out the shutdown until the program starts back up again). The family is facing the absolute necessity of round-the-clock specialty care with only two parents to give it, and all the other important work still to be done. How long they can last, before physical, emotional and mental exhaustion fells one of the parents with a serious illness, or leads to tragic errors in judgment, I don’t know. I know what it feels like, though; my household once was like theirs.
There is a bit of consolation, however. Congress’s failure to fund essential programs has produced its own peculiar good news.
For students, that good news is in the response of some institutions of higher learning. Many are looking at students in distress and sharing some of the pain. Deferring payments to more opportune times and devoting staff time and resources to meetings with students to examine alternative strategies for continuing their studies are ways institutions of higher learning are taking a little of their students’ current burdens on themselves. Certainly, we all hope such arrangements are temporary, and all the books will be essentially set to rights sooner rather than later. But even without such guarantees, some are trying to help lift the burden on students anyway . . . because the students are a part of our lives, of our community.
That struggling family also is getting help. A network of local nurses, some retired, some giving of their time off, is coming together to provide skilled nursing care so that Dad can work and Mom can sleep, or take a walk, or play a game with the other kids. It’s a patchwork quilt of care, frayed in places and uneven throughout, but it’s a cover, and it will help this family survive until sanity returns in Washington and funds return to their home-care nurses.
I’ve only scratched the surface, of course. Poor families will find certain subsidies no longer available. Tutoring programs will close up shop. Offices will go dark, and their employees will stay home, cutting into the breakfast and lunch crowds in restaurants and coffee shops, leading to reduced hours, forcing their employees to miss payments, and so on.
It’s that “multiplier effect” economists love to discuss, only running background, compounding the losses and increasing the pain.
But if one looks for good news (and I have to, to keep my sanity), it may be that some of us, at least, are rediscovering our duty to our neighbor and shouldering our small part of the burden they bear. Uncle Sam’s absence has made us more aware of the challenges of our neighbors, and their unmet needs more aware of our capacity to make a difference.