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The hidden costs of the government shutdown

35 ways the shutdown is affecting America, from small-business loans to alcohol labels.

Kraft Heinz Passes Out Free Food To Furloughed Workers In Washington DC Alex Wong/Getty Images

Airport lines are long, national parks are being vandalized: These are ubiquitous signs of the 34-day partial government shutdown. Nine federal departments are closed, and hundreds of other government operations have been scaled back or stopped altogether. They might be less visible, but they’re no less crucial.

The longest shutdown in American history started because of an impasse between President Trump and Congress. He demanded $5 billion to fund the construction of a wall on the US-Mexico border, but Democrats refused. Now 800,000 federal workers are about to miss a second paycheck, and some workers are refusing to keep working without pay.

As the shutdown enters its second month, its consequences are becoming more visible in American business and life. Startups in Silicon Valley are unable to issue IPOs. Indian reservations are not receiving federal benefits to support daily costs. And thousands of immigration hearings have been delayed due to closed courts.

The effects are a reminder of how many facets of life the federal government touches — and how large a hole it can create when it stops working.

The economy

  • At the Securities and Exchange Commission, more than 4,000 staff members are furloughed, delaying initial public offerings for companies, according to the Associated Press. Highly valued companies such as Uber and Lyft are waiting for lawyers to review paperwork that would qualify them to have public stock.
  • Private firms on Wall Street that help process IPOs are also losing thousands of dollars due to the stalled offerings of smaller, cash-strapped companies, according to a report by Ciara Linnane for MarketWatch.
  • The Federal Trade Commission, which is responsible for helping victims of identity theft, is shuttered — leaving victims to deal with the consequences on their own, NBC News reports.
  • The Small Business Administration has stopped approving routine small-business loans, forcing some entrepreneurs to resort to “desperate measures,” the Wall Street Journal’s Ruth Simon found. Some company owners have stopped their expansion plans; others are considering more expensive streams of cash.
  • If you’ve got faulty brakes, don’t call the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The agency isn’t open to issue recalls or provide reliable information about unsafe consumer products, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Heidi Vogt.
  • A CNN report found that company merger plans are also stalled without SEC personnel to process asset combinations. Businesses are also struggling to issue W-2s without the help of the IRS, and to get answers about new tax law.
  • Some economic reports concerning housing and retail prices aren’t coming out, according to Brad McMillan for Forbes. For example, the monthly Housing Starts report won’t be published until the shutdown ends. This report by the US Census Bureau gives housing market forecasts.
  • Tax season is around the corner, but the IRS is not able to issue W-2 forms or answer employer questions about the new tax law, HR 1. According to a report by Brian Faler for Politico, refund delays will be likely this year and could strain middle-class voters who once supported Trump’s policies. The new tax code is reportedly the most significant tax change in a generation.

Read Emily Stewart’s report for Vox to learn more about the economic consequences of the shutdown.

Environment and science

  • Regular Environmental Protection Agency inspections for pollutants have stalled, according to the New York Times’s Coral Davenport. So if, for example, hazardous wastewater were flowing from a water treatment plant, no one would be there to detect the issue. According to the Times, the EPA conducts more than 10,000 inspections per year and was already behind before the shutdown started.
  • Trash and human waste is building up in national parks like Joshua Tree, Vox’s Aditi Shrikant reported. While the parks have been kept open during the shutdown, volunteers can’t keep up with cleaning demands and no rangers are on duty if visitors were to encounter danger.
  • If the shutdown continues into wildfire season, firefighter pay could be at risk, according to a report by the Associated Press in the Charlotte Observer. The US Forest Service funds local firefighting squads, and without government funding, prevention and response units could join the tens of thousands of “essential” federal employees who have been working without pay. And wildfire season could come sooner than you think: In states like Oklahoma, January is the driest month of the year, with most fires occurring in March or April, the AP reports.
  • Meanwhile, wildfire recovery efforts in California could soon stall. NPR reports that local organizations are waiting to apply for grants — while hoping the delay doesn’t endanger their long-term efforts to rebuild their communities.
  • Superfund sites (a.k.a. nuclear waste dumps) are also monitored by the EPA. According to the Washington Post, residents who live near the sites have no way of contacting response units if a nuclear accident were to occur. The agency also had to cancel a pending public hearing on a $2.5 million plan to clean up contaminated soil.
  • Researchers monitoring hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean are also furloughed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is only keeping up with regular forecasts, but preemptive storm research has been paused, according to the Miami Herald’s Jenny Staletovich.
  • Disrupted scientific research by NOAA on climate change will likely impact long-term results, says a report by Kendra Pierre-Louis for the New York Times. Projects tracking global temperatures or natural disaster costs have been ignored due to closed research labs and dwindling grant funds.
  • Other planned or ongoing studies will fail to be conclusive because laboratories are closed. For example, a three-month US Department of Agriculture investigation of fungi has been nulled because inconsistent data can’t be published. The National Science Foundation has no shutdown contingency plan for allocating grants to scientists. Even with some private funding, researchers cannot afford to maintain their work and get reliable results, according to David Malakoff for Science.
  • Global ice sheets are melting faster than ever, Umair Irfan wrote for Vox, but Science reports that NASA’s research into the phenomenon is frozen. The agency’s ice-monitoring satellite was designed to track world ice loss without interruption, and the shutdown could threaten the only ongoing record of the change.
  • Civil penalties for polluters by the EPA were at an 85 percent low this year, according to a report by Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis for the Washington Post. The penalties monitor waste and use a financial incentive to encourage compliance with environmentally friendly practices.


  • More than 40,000 immigration hearings (and counting) have been canceled due to the shutdown, according to a report by the Transactional Records Access Clearing House at Syracuse University. For these people who legally applied for asylum, there was already a backlog, according to a CNN report. More than 300 judges have been furloughed as well as workers hiring new judges. Rescheduling each canceled hearing could take years, and the true number of people from around the world who are impacted won’t be known until the shutdown is over.
  • E-Verify allows companies to check if potential employees are in the US legally — and it isn’t working without federal funding. A CNN report said employees can still work even if their verification is delayed, but it may slow down hiring processes for furloughed workers looking for new jobs during the shutdown.
  • The government isn’t even paying Border Patrol, according to a CNN report. More than 170,000 Department of Homeland Security employees are working without paychecks, although they claim to support the president’s mission.

Native American tribes

  • The Bureau of Indian Affairs didn’t meet this month to settle check amounts that Native American tribes receive for basic food, health care, and maintenance services, according to NPR. The per capita checks from the US government were initially designed as reparations for land treaties that took property from tribes and now help sustain these critical services for nearly 2 million Native Americans.
  • A New York Times report by Mitch Smith and Julie Turkewitz found that because the Interior Department is shut down, law enforcement officers on reservations have been working without pay, food distribution is delayed, wintry roads are not cleared, and courts are not open.
  • Tribes have lost up to $250,000 per day since the shutdown began, according to a report by Jenni Monet for CityLab. Families are unable to afford groceries, gas, and medical payments without this federal support.

Food and agriculture

  • While Food and Drug Administration inspections of high-risk food manufacturing facilities have continued, routine checks on low-risk facilities have stopped, as Julia Belluz detailed for Vox. The agency oversees about 80 percent of the country’s food supply. USDA inspections have continued without interruption.
  • Right when you’re ready to celebrate the end of dry January, don’t look for new beer and wine labels. Alcohol producers can’t introduce new products because the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is closed, Salvador Hernandez reported for BuzzFeed News. Local makers will likely lose business because they can’t get the necessary approval in time to sell their spring batches.
  • If not wine, it’s water that’s causing local businesses to suffer losses. According to Liz Weber for The Journal, the US Drought Monitor is no longer providing open data for farmers so they can plan what and when to grow in the upcoming season. A report by Jack Healy and Tyler Pager for The New York Times found that farmers are losing money waiting for loans to pay off operational debts — all after they’ve already lost billions of dollars via Trump’s trade wars.
  • Furloughed workers are struggling to even access food. The Department of Agriculture regularly funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). SNAP is only guaranteed funds through February, as Tara Golshan wrote for Vox. The New York Times’s Glenn Thrush found that some workers have turned to a local shelter or pantry, but these organizations are also struggling to meet a higher demand for services.


  • Thrush also found that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is struggling to regularly subsidize payments for home renters. Renters are being asked to pay money they don’t have to make up the difference because the government isn’t.
  • The Rural Housing Service, which issues home loans in rural America, is shut down and can’t process assistance to homeowners, according to Lisa Rein, Juliet Eilperin, and Jeff Stein at the Washington Post. Closing the RHS’s $30 billion operation threatens thousands of families across the nation and further drives inequality in housing accessibility.
  • The same Washington Post report found that housing for domestic violence victims is also subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and furloughed HUD staffers can’t access money for the nonprofits and shelters that support these victims because computer systems are down.

Crime and security

  • A report by Tucker Higgins for CNBC found the FBI has stalled interviews of child victims and indictments for homicides and child sexual assault prosecutions. Agents are working without pay, although much of the FBI’s work has been delayed.
  • Government websites are less protected from hackers during the shutdown, according to Laura Sydell at NPR. The likelihood of cybersecurity risks is higher — and already happening. Security certificates have expired, fake copy sites have appeared, and webpages are missing.
  • Prison officials have also been working without pay, and it seems like things are getting bad. Ellie Kaufman and Gregory Wallace reported for CNN that worker security and basic resources for prisoners have been threatened by the shutdown. Regular programming, including visitation and education in the prisons, has also been cut back due to staff and supply shortages, and some inmates have gone on a hunger strike in protest, per CNN.
  • Unions representing aviation workers issued a joint statement warning of “unprecedented” risks to airplane security and safety operations. Air traffic controllers and TSA agents are federal employees who are working without pay — and more and more of these workers have been absent from the workplace as the shutdown drags on. Some air traffic controllers may even be taking the opportunity to retire despite major staffing shortages. Vox’s Shrikant reported that TSA agents haven’t even received bonuses they were promised for missing wages. Some major airports have closed security checkpoints, forcing passengers to wait in long lines.