Jan. 25 marked the end of the longest government shutdown in United States history. During the 35 days that the government was partially shut down, approximately 800,000 federal workers and over a million government contractors were furloughed. In the midst of this chaos, on Jan. 10, business and economics correspondent Paul Solman interviewed Kevin Hassett ’84, Chief Economic Adviser to President Trump and Honors economics major while at Swarthmore, for the PBS News Hour. In the interview, which occurred on day sixteen of the shutdown, Hassett stated that furloughed government workers were “in some sense, better off” and referred to the shutdown as “a vacation” for these workers, comments which were both false and tone-deaf.
This response came after Solman asked him about the shutdown’s potential long-term economic effects. Hassett conceded that the shutdown hurt the economy in the short-term, but, he said, “A huge share of government workers were going to take vacation days, say, between Christmas and New Year’s. We have a shutdown, and so [federal workers] can’t go to work, and so then they have the vacation, but they don’t have to use their vacation days. And then they come back, and then they get their back pay. Then they’re — in some sense, they’re better off.”
His comments, though made before the withholding of the first paycheck of the shutdown, betray a lack of understanding of the day-to-day lives that many Americans lead. According to a Federal Reserve Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2017, 40 percent of Americans don’t have $400 to spare for emergencies or unexpected expenses. The shutdown laid bare the fact that federal employees comprise part of this group, as national media covered their struggles to make ends meet. Many workers had to turn to food banks for basic nourishment. Others took to bartering with their landlords because they could not cover rent without their most recent paychecks. In a desperate attempt to mitigate the harm, the U.S. Coast Guard provided suggestions for furloughed employees. Their recommendations included garage sales, dog-walking, and babysitting. As a last option, the CUT reports, they suggested bankruptcy. Hassett deeply disregarded the material harm the shutdown has caused to over a million people.
Hassett’s comments are therefore also not based in fact. The shutdown was not a vacation for these employees. And though it is true that furloughed workers will receive back pay, federal contractors, including a large number of janitors, security guards, and cafeteria servers, will not receive back pay under current policy. While the economy may recover, as he suggested, the strength of our economy does not save American families from financial crises. Our economy, which has been strong since the recovery from the 2008 depression, is clearly not working for who it’s supposed to be working for — that is, the American people.
The comments are also antithetical to everything Swarthmore purports to value — ethical concern, social concern, pursuit of the “common good.” Playing political chicken that leads to the suspension of federal services and payment is antithetical to social concern. Shutting down the government at the expense of workers who already are living paycheck-to-paycheck is antithetical to the common good. Hassett has failed not only as a public servant, but also as an alumnus of the college.