The Human Cost of a Government Shutdown

Editor’s note: The post below was written by a federal government employee, currently on furlough.

On December 22nd, 2018, a partial government shutdown forced many “nonessential” government workers out of their jobs. Many others were required to report to work without pay. As the shutdown wears on, thousands more contractors are affected, and many are being laid off as a direct result of the shutdown. I am one of those furloughed workers, and this time away from work has clarified for me experientially a fact I had known only theoretically: we were made to work.

In Genesis 2, God puts Adam in the garden to cultivate it, to work. From the very beginning, a central aspect of our identity as humans is to work. But what happens when you are told that you cannot work – that doing your work is illegal? Some people have suggested that the shutdown is like a vacation for federal workers; many of my non-federal friends have joked, “well, at least you are getting paid eventually.” Much has been written about the financial impact that this shutdown has on workers, but it is also existentially damaging, at least for me.

While it is nice to get paid for our work, being told that you cannot do your work strikes at the very heart of identity. In a place like Washington, D.C., where most people move specifically for a career, the exhortation in Christian contexts is consistently that we should not find our identity in our job or career, which is important and true. But Genesis 2 shows us that it is equally true that part of our identity is as cultivators. And that is what has made the shutdown difficult for so many workers: we are not only under financial, but existential strain. We are told that we cannot do the things that we feel most equipped and most called to do. While there are plenty of non-work things to occupy my time – housework, family time, not to mention that the shutdown has done wonders for my January fitness goals – none of those things satisfy the need to work.

While this shutdown will (presumably) end, this loss of work is actually a broader problem in our world. As the job market polarizes, many workers are finding that there are few jobs in their area for which they are qualified. A number of people have written about the effect that deteriorating labor market conditions and job loss have on the mental health of workers. Why does being unable to find work have such a large impact on mental health? Because the threat cuts to the core of our identity as human beings created in God’s image: people are unable to work as they were created to.

How then should we have compassion towards these people, both furloughed workers, and others who are long-term unemployed?

First, we need to constantly affirm the dignity of all work. Genesis 2 pictures a God who gets his hands dirty - a direct contrast to other creation myths in the ancient Near East.

Second, we need to understand the full costs—financial, emotional, and psychological—as we support our brothers and sisters who are furloughed or long-term unemployed. Financial support is obviously important - and a least in D.C., there are large networks of people providing support - but we have to also acknowledge the emotional toll of not being able to work, which does great damage to a person’s sense of value.

This furlough has taught me two things that I did not fully grasp until now. First, the discontent that comes from being unable to work – a feeling that lots of long-term unemployed people have experienced to an even greater degree. This understanding has helped me understand the strain that they are under in a new light, beyond financial difficulties. Second, it has helped me see the community that is built at work. Since I have been away from work, I have very few opportunities to see my coworkers. This loss of relationship over the last month has helped me see how important the people with whom I work are in my life, and the great contributions they make.