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Cash-strapped federal workers flock to food banks amid US government shutdown

There was no sign early today of a breakthrough in the showdown between Trump and Democrats in Congress.

People wait in line at Chef Jose Andres' World Central Kitchen for free meals to workers affected by the government shutdown in Washington
People wait in line at Chef Jose Andres' World Central Kitchen for free meals to workers affected by the government shutdown in Washington
Image: Pablo Martinez Monsivais via PA Images

FOUR WEEKS INTO the US government shutdown, cash-strapped federal workers are tapping life-savings, selling possessions and turning to soup kitchens to make ends meet – ramping up pressure for leaders in Washington to strike a deal.

Communities from Washington to Kodiak, Alaska are feeling increasing pain, with the cutoff of paychecks to families snowballing to hit stores and businesses dependent on their spending.

Volunteer groups are collecting food to hand out, towns are organising job fairs, and banks and telecommunications firms have loosened rules on payments, all to cushion the hardship.

In Washington, celebrated chef Jose Andres today launched a “ChefsforFeds” programme with a new “food kitchen” offering free meals to hard-hit workers on Pennsylvania Avenue – halfway between the White House and Congress.

In Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other states, furloughed federal workers were getting advice on applying for unemployment benefits.

Montgomery County outside Washington has organised a job fair to find paid work for idled government workers and contractors.

And in Middletown, New York, Pets Alive, an animal shelter, announced free dog and cat food for the pets of families hit by the shutdown.

“We will provide one bag of food per family, Need proof of fed employment,” they announced.

No sign of compromise

There was no sign early today of a breakthrough in the showdown between President Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress.

Trump insists he won’t agree to open the government until Congress agrees to his demand for $5.7 billion to build a border wall, which he argues is needed to prevent illegal immigration.

Democrats have held firm, demanding that Trump sign a budget bill with no funding for a wall.

In December, Trump initially agreed to a bill that would temporarily fund the government, while setting aside the wall for the time being. But he abruptly reversed course after an outcry by right-wing pundits, precipitating the shutdown on 22 December.

“It is becoming more and more obvious that the Radical Democrats are a Party of open borders and crime. They want nothing to do with the major Humanitarian Crisis on our Southern Border,” Trump tweeted today.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, meanwhile, pressed Trump to postpone his annual State of the Union address until after the government opens.

The speech is scheduled for 29 January, but Pelosi cited security concerns arising from the shutdown in urging Trump to either delay it or submit it in writing.

More than 800,000 federal workers didn’t get paid last week, pain shared by several million more contractors who also have been idled by the shutdown – many of them low-paid service workers who live paycheck to paycheck.

The worst-hit area is Washington DC, but federal workers are spread across the country. In Kodiak, Alaska, for example, hundreds of Coast Guard workers haven’t been paid for weeks, but still have to work.

Briana Wansley, an engineer for Federal Aviation Administration, was looking for temporary work at a jobs centre in Virginia outside Washington, where substitute teacher positions were on offer.

“The shutdown came a month after I just started,” she said.  

“It’s a very uneasy time, especially just starting a new job. I thought the government was stable, that’s why I came to the government and then this happens.”

‘Game of chicken’

While Andres’ effort was garnering headlines, more humble local food banks around the country were calling for donations and opening their doors to laid-off workers.

Washington’s Bread for the City said it saw a surge in demand after it offered a five-day supply of groceries to people left out of work by the shutdown.

“When we have economic downturns or man-made crises such as this shutdown, people living with low incomes suffer most,” the non-profit group said in a statement.

“One of the reasons this game of chicken is easy for the powers that be is that those in charge don’t suffer. The people who suffer most are the ones who already struggling to get by.”

© AFP 2019  

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