The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter George Cobb stand ready for a uniform inspection prior to the cutter’s change of command ceremony held at Coast Guard Base Los Angeles-Long Beach on June 16, 2016. (Photo source: U.S. Coast Guard. Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrea Anderson.)

The unprecedented federal government shutdown is having an ongoing and negative impact in rural America.  Over 800,000 federal workers in a number of government agencies are missing paychecks and feeling financial stress.  Almost 80 percent of US government employees work somewhere other than in the Washington, D.C., area.   

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one of the largest shuttered agencies, had 95,980 employees in 2017, but most are in more than 4,500 offices around the country and abroad.   

A January 9 New York Times analysis looked at the number of federal workers in shutdown-affected agencies per 10,000 workers in each state.  Five of the top six such states were in the West and have substantial rural populations:  Alaska (173 federal workers per 10,000 workers), Montana (157), Wyoming (131), New Mexico (127), and South Dakota (100).  Maryland was the sixth with 137 such workers. 

Politicians of course would never furlough or cause missed paychecks for military personnel and workers at the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.  Their budgets are funded, but Homeland Security is not.  Part of that department is the U.S. Coast Guard, and a number of media reports indicate that their personnel are feeling the extreme stress of missed paychecks.  Some are turning to food banks.  Many Coast Guard stations are in small rural communities, where the missing disposable income must be hurting the local economy.  In Maine, for example, five of the six Coast Guard stations are in communities of less than 9,500, and the sixth is in a city of 25,000.  In Virginia, two of the three Coast Guard stations are in towns of less than 3,000.  In Louisiana, two of the three stations are in small towns of less than 2,800 people.   

When the 42,000 active-duty Coast Guard members missed their first paycheck in mid-January, their commandant noted that “this marks the first time in our nation’s history that service members in a U.S. Armed Force have not been paid in a lapse in appropriations.” 

The shutdown also threatens to severely delay or cancel many federal services such as USDA low-income housing loans and grants.  The National Rural Housing Coalition has been tracking the impact and reports that families “waiting to close their [USDA] home mortgages are hung out to dry, families building their homes are stymied, and hundreds of thousands of families receiving [USDA] rental subsidies may soon lose that assistance if the government shutdown goes on for ‘months or years.’” 

On January 16 USDA announced that the Farm Service Agency will call back 2,500 staff and reopen for three days to help farmers with current loans and tax issues.  But new farm loans applications will not be taken, even as the spring planting season approaches, and the recalled staff will be working without pay. A cynic might think the FSA is reopening to help a key part of Donald Trump’s base. 

How long will this disgrace go on?  How much damage has been caused and how much more is to come?  A Coast Guard spouse in Bacliff, Texas (pop. 8,619) says, “I blame every single elected official… They need to get it together.” 

Joe Belden is a writer and consultant based in Washington, D.C 

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