WASHINGTON — Federal workers are regular people. And, charitable groups across the Washington, D.C., region say regular people live paycheck-to-paycheck. That fact should be a cause for worry in the capital and across the country as the government shutdown drags on, they say.
"So many of the people that rely on free food or food assistance in D.C. aren't in abject poverty, it's working poor families," said Alexander Moore, development director at the D.C. Central Kitchen.
"So these people are one paycheck away from being in serious need, from going from food insecurity to hunger ... We're an industry town, it would be like having the entertainment industry shutdown in Los Angeles or an automotive shutdown in Detroit. It's going to reverberate all the way down the pyramid," he said.
Already one furloughed government worker has picked up groceries at Northern Virginia Family Service, a nonprofit charity that serves D.C.-metro area residents. Staff are worrying that the shutdown could stretch for weeks, meaning federal assistance will end unless the government is reopened.
"The question is what will happen at the end of the month," said Tonya McCreary, spokesperson for NVFS. "We don't know if more will come or will have to do more for people who need more."
So far, food charities in the region haven't seen big upticks in needy people looking for help with food, but the chance of the shutdown dragging through two pay periods has them worried. While lawmakers continue to wrestle with the politics of reopening the government and getting the thousands of Washington-area government workers paid again, charitable groups are watching closely and worrying that the job of feeding workers will land on their shoulders.
"We're extremely worried about what's going to happen to the furloughed federal workers," said Ross Fraser, spokesman for Chicago-based Feeding America, a charity that helps provide the food distributed by around 61,000 food banks and pantries across the country.
He reiterated the point that many federal workers, like many Americans, would find themselves in a serious financial bind if they miss two paychecks.
"People are going to be scrambling," Fraser said.
Federal aid programs are funded through the end of the month, and with the government shutdown continuing, the October deadline was on the minds of many charities.
"After October, if something were to happen to these programs ... the consequences would be catastrophic," said Roxanne Rice, executive director of Virginia-based charity Food For Others. "Food banks cannot make up the difference. We work together [with the federal government]."
Thursday evening brought the first signs since the start of the Oct. 1 shutdown that a deal may be in the works between the White House and Capitol Hill to reopen the government. Talks between House GOP leadership and President Obama resulted in cautious but cordial statements from both sides, suggesting that the tough rhetoric that had kept the sides in their corners was coming to an end. But earlier in the day, House Republicans proposed a plan that would have left the government closed but extended the debt ceiling. That worried charitable groups in Washington in charge of feeding the hungry.
With things up in the air however, and resources already stretched by the sequester, few groups had begun contingency planning in case the shutdown went on. But the frustration was palpable.
"This is the stupidest crisis we've ever dealt with, without question," Moore said. "This is the intersection of a stupid train running into a dynamite pile of stupid."