Urban Wire The shutdown through the lens of families and children
Robert Abare
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The longest-ever government shutdown will soon enter its fifth week. The shutdown has disrupted much more than government services like airport security screenings or tax return processing. Thousands of American families and their children now face mounting instability and hardship.

On Urban Wire and in the media, Urban researchers have helped paint a detailed, evidence-based picture of the shutdown’s impact on America’s families. Here are five examples:

1. Families are struggling to pay for basic needs

“The shutdown is destabilizing these families and their children, putting their well-being and healthy development in jeopardy. Unfortunately, these workers are joining millions of other parents facing similar challenges.

“Our recent report on hardship among low-income families with children shows that many parents in the US already face these same challenges, with no promise of back pay or any other measure of stability.”

Gina Adams

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is continuing to help millions of low-income families pay for food amid the shutdown, but the program faces an uncertain future. Elaine Waxman believes the government will find a solution for SNAP if the shutdown drags on.

Despite the shutdown’s disruption to income and daily life, parents are sheltering their children from negative consequences, noted Heather Sandstrom. “Children are very receptive to emotions. When the parents are strong…when they try to find ways to make ends meet, they can help their children and provide support to them.”

2. Families relying on housing assistance face the threat of eviction

“The most widespread risk is felt among people living in project-based rental assistance (project-based Section 8) properties.

“This program provides long-term contracts to private owners to fund housing assistance for eligible low-income tenants living in their units. Because of the shutdown, about 1,150 of these contracts have expired, leaving 80,000 people—mostly seniors and people with disabilities—at risk of losing their homes.”

Susan J. Popkin and Benny Docter

In Arkansas, one landlord has already warned tenants that eviction proceedings could begin if their rent isn’t paid by January 20. And these troubles won’t vanish once the shutdown ends. As Mary K. Cunningham points out, the shutdown could have lasting damage on the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s ability to enter into contracts with landlords.

“I think this shutdown sends a very dangerous message to landlords, which is the government doesn’t pay its bills,” she said.

3. Vulnerable families are depending on tax returns, which could be delayed

“The timing of the partial government shutdown is particularly ominous because it lines up with an uncertain tax season since this is the first year that the provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act affect many Americans. And for low-income households, the tax refunds they normally receive through the EITC [earned income tax credit] and the CTC [child tax credit] are critical to their financial well-being.

“Last year, the IRS delivered almost $300 billion in tax refunds (of that, about one-third reflects the EITC and CTC).”

Elaine Maag

4. Many federal workers are family caregivers

“According to the recent Federal Work-Life Survey, which I oversaw with my colleagues at the US Office of Personnel Management, 36 percent of federal employees report having child care responsibilities, and 14 percent report having responsibilities for an adult (including elders) with special needs.

“The financial strain of the ongoing partial government shutdown may be particularly acute for these families.”

Shirley Adelstein

5. Children are often left out of high-profile funding debates

“What if American children were the center of today’s funding debate? How would $5.7 billion support children’s development into healthy, successful adults?

“Based on the Urban Institute’s latest annual Kids’ Share report, which analyzes public spending on children, $5.7 billion is the same amount the federal government spent in 2017 on the Child Care and Development Fund. Similar spending in prior years helped more than 1 million children access high-quality child care but left six in seven eligible children without subsidies.”

Heather Hahn


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Research Areas Families
Tags Families with low incomes Welfare and safety net programs Economic well-being Children's health and development Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Housing subsidies Hunger and food assistance
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population Income and Benefits Policy Center Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center