Canned spaghetti, bread, and chips. It’s not healthy, but it’s what’s on the menu tonight for my four kids and me. They’re getting tired of it, and I don’t blame them; they’re used to home-cooked meals like pot roast or tacos, dinners that actually fill them up. But as of three weeks ago, nonperishables are all I can afford.
My last check from my employer, the Internal Revenue Service, or IRS, was dated December 31st. Living paycheck to paycheck is normal for me—I’ve been raising my kids with no help or support from their father for eight years now. But I’ve already spent my last check, and right now I have no idea when I’ll get another one.
It was about three days before the government shutdown when my manager informed me that I’d still have to come into work. I do data entry for the Remittance Processing System, a team that takes care of the money people pay for their taxes. I’ve only worked in this department for a year, which means I’m low on the totem pole.
When my manager told me I had to work, I didn’t fight it. How could I? I enjoy my job. I want to keep it. I need to keep it.
Instead, when my money ran out last week, I started dipping into the emergency $1,000 I managed to save from last year’s tax return. It’s not going to last long—it’s already dwindling.
Snooze, sleep, repeat. I finally wake up around 4 a.m., which is what time I have to get out of bed if I’m going to be on time for my unpaid 6 a.m. shift. I squeeze the toothpaste from the end of the tube a little harder than I did last night. Who knows when I’ll be able to afford another tube?
Next I sip on murky home-brewed coffee, pretending it’s my normal Starbucks beverage—a luxury I had to quickly halt once the shutdown occurred. Every dollar counts.
My children are 15, 13, 8, and 7. When they wake up, they’re anxious. The stress they see me under must be contagious. They know what’s going on—why their mom can’t afford to give them any money this week. That doesn’t mean they’re okay with it.
I pack up their belongings. “Mom, reminding you about my dress…” says my eldest child. Her winter dance is coming up. Before the shutdown, we were looking forward to it, but now, if I don’t get paid, she might have to wear her dress from last year again. She won’t have a new one like others in her class.
We load into the car, and I watch the miles on the gas gauge decrease. After I drop the kids at their grandma’s house—she gets them ready for school—my 30-minute commute to work begins. I have nothing to occupy the space in my mind other than a list of all the things I need to pay for this month.
Rent, car payment, utilities… When will I be paid?
Dentist appointment, speech therapy, school dance… When will I be paid?
In my office these days, you can quite literally hear apathy within the cubicles. Some people are quiet, some are sipping coffee; all are cranky. I opt out of my normal vending machine purchase to save money. Hunger I can deal with.
Our team of 13 employees has decreased to five during this time. We pay attention to the news on our phones and computers, listening for any sign that we will soon be compensated for the past three weeks’ work.
On a break, I call my friend and let her know I can’t go out to eat for our weekly girl’s night. She understands, but it’s embarrassing that I can’t afford to do things for myself anymore.
At the end of my 9-hour work day, I drive the 30 miles back home trying not to think about the $40 I spend every week on gas. When it’s time for dinner, I make—you guessed it!—canned spaghetti, bread, and chips. My savings (and hopes) are dissipating with each passing day. I’m providing free labor to the government, with no end in sight, while my family goes without. When will this finally be over?
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