Local coverage tracks shutdown’s impact

Papers from Maine to Minnesota and beyond find consequences for those in need

The government shutdown in Washington will be temporary—but the damage it creates in some lives is likely to be long-lasting as programs for the poor and social-services charities that depend on the largesse of federal workers are disrupted.

While the political debate plays out and the broader economic outcome is weighed, there are plenty of resonant stories to be told about this angle—as recent reporting in some local newspapers show.

A good example of how to localize this abstract national story comes from Baird Helgeson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Helgeson reported this week that 71 Minnesota nurses were among those told they might be let go temporarily, even as about 1,200 employees of the Minnesota National Guard were being recalled to work.

Many of the nurses work in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program, a federally funded effort to prevent lifelong damage to children from inadequate diets during gestation and their first few years. The program also saves taxpayers money, as this study and others have shown.

Asking about cutting food for poor women who are pregnant might be an especially good question for those members of Congress who support the shutdown and also oppose abortion or even contraception.

Then there are the effects of the shutdown on the disabled, as Dennis Hoey of the Portland Press Herald reported Oct. 9 in a brief but informative article:

Maine residents with mental or physical disabilities won’t be able to qualify for Social Security disability benefits as of Tuesday because of the federal government shutdown.

Gov. Paul LePage announced Monday night that the shutdown has caused the immediate layoffs of 52 employees in the Disability Determination Office in Winthrop. The office operates under the auspices of the state Department of Health and Human Services and its workers are considered state employees, but their salaries are 100 percent funded by the federal government.

These are just the sort of stories that local news organizations, even those whose reporting ranks have been savaged by budget cuts, can report quickly.

Among larger news organizations, Bloomberg offered an excellent big-picture roundup—one that can be mined for ideas by local outlets—by William Selway, Chris Christoff, and Margaret Newkirk. Their Oct. 10 piece, headlined “States Eliminating Aid for the Poor as Shutdown Forces Cuts,” reported:

Michigan is preparing to put as many as 20,000 workers on unpaid leave and eliminate cash and food aid to the poor. North Carolina sent 366 employees home and closed its nutrition aid program to tens of thousands of women and children. Illinois this week may issue furloughs to hundreds of federally funded employees, including workplace safety inspectors.

This article followed stellar Bloomberg reporting on the shutdown’s effects on business—even global business matters, like disruptions to trade negotiations and currency fluctuations.

Charities that provide a host of social services are also being hurt, in part because the partial government shutdown has brought what The Washington Post describes as “the world’s largest workplace charitable giving program—the Combined Federal Campaign”—to a standstill. Nationally, the campaign raised $258.3 million last year.

Reporter Vanessa Small focused on the local story, noting that in the Post circulation area “130,000 federal employees gave $61.6 million to 4,470 local nonprofits last year.”

Among them was the DC Central Kitchen, a feeding organization that counts on gifts from federal workers for 5 percent of its budget. Most federal feeding programs for the elderly, shut-ins, the homeless and poor families are run by local charities, but rely in part on federal funds that have stopped flowing during the shutdown.

Reporters who want to examine how the least powerful and most vulnerable are being affected can call the heads of their local United Ways, community foundations, direct service agencies such as Volunteers of America and advocacy groups for the poor, disabled, young and old. And asking local members of Congress—especially those who favor the shutdown, or whose actions are most responsible for it—about how the vulnerable are being affected would be useful information for voters.

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David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ. Tags: , , , ,