Forget About the Tourists, Worry About the Workers

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A "closed" sign is seen through the locked iron gate of the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

A "closed" sign is seen through the locked iron gate of the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The government shutdown is revealing how easily distracted we are by shiny objects. An enormous amount of ink has been devoted to the closure of the World War II Memorial. Tourist sites – national parks and public museums — get a fair amount of attention. Some worry that the federal government won’t be able to enforce sanctions against Iran.

And it isn’t just Fox News minimizing the real-world damage lawmakers are inflicting on the public, with its artfully worded “government slimdown,” and its pundits making it seem like the biggest problem with the shutdown is that you can’t visit the Statue of Liberty. Mostly what we hear of the economic effects are about federal employees being furloughed and military pay.

These are important stories, but they fail to capture the economic pain that ordinary Americans, and especially the poor, will feel if the shutdown drags on. A small group of Republican hard-liners on a quixotic crusade against a Supreme Court-sanctioned law are shutting down the bulk of a federal government that contributes almost a quarter of our economic output.

In addition to those 800,000 federal workers who are suddenly idled without pay – and who may not see any back-pay – the government keeps millions of people employed in the private sector. Many are middle-class workers who may be able to afford missing a couple of paychecks, but the federal government is also, indirectly, the biggest low-wage employer in the country. The people pushing mops in federal buildings and selling souvenirs at tourist attractions are living paycheck to paycheck working for federal contractors, and can’t afford to take a hit so the tea party can throw its tantrum over Obamacare.

A survey of 925 contractors conducted this week found that 58 percent think the shutdown will hurt their business. One defense contractor, United Technologies, has already announced that it will furlough 2,000 employees, and said that could grow to 5,000 if the shutdown continues.

We are in the midst of the longest period of elevated unemployment since the Great Depression, and it’s mostly due to a lack of private sector demand for goods and services. Everyone who’s getting hurt during the shutdown – federal employees, contractors and their employees, and people losing public benefits – are going to have less to spend, depressing demand even further while adding to the ranks of the unemployed.

So real pain is being inflicted on those who were already economically insecure just as various public services are shutting down. Low-income parents won’t be able to drop their kids off at Head Start programs in many states. As Zoe Carpenter notes in The Nation, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) will run out of funds if the shutdown drags out much longer.

And at this point the only thing driving the continuing shutdown is simple pride – the tea partiers’ desperate need to not appear weak. “We’re not going to be disrespected,” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN) told the Washington Examiner. “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.

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