Most Americans (60%) live paycheck to paycheck; that’s why we need to give federal workers theirs

Bankrate.com. Click for full research.

Missing even one paycheck matters. A lot. To about 60% of all Americans, according to a just-released survey by BankRate.com. So yes, forcing government workers to show up without pay is wrong, unfair, and in some cases cruel.

I flew out of Reagan airport in DC this morning, and I was lucky there was a short security line. It also seemed to me there were short tempers, too — as one would expect.  There were no bins for people in line.  A couple of them tried to walk behind a counter and retrieve some bins.  A TSA scanner  yelled at them for going to a restricted area. But no one showed up to bring them a fresh pile of bins.  So a few more fliers tried it. More yelling.

Even a polite “thank you for being here today, I’m sure it’s difficult” from a passenger (not me, a more gracious flier) elicited a stone-faced response.

This is no way to secure air travel. Or to run a country.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about federal workers and their paychecks, and that’s adding to the problem we have right now. For decades, civil servants have taken the brunt of a lot of political namecalling — it’s cheap humor to badger them.  Sure, some are overpaid, or lazy, or officious, but I bet you have such folks at your office, too. Sure, some of them have great vacation and health care policies. I bet you wish you did. Not their fault. Your employer’s fault.

There’s not much I can do to fix this popular ire, other than invite you to take the trouble to get to know some federal employees.  Some folks really do need that human connection to learn. Someone at my church recently asserted that he was sure federal workers were getting paid throughout the shutdown. That’s not true.

But as to our immediate point: Bankrate’s survey reveals that only 4 out of 10 American could cover a $1,000 unexpected expense with a savings.  The rest would turn to credit cards, family, payday loans, and so on.  That number has been fairly consistent for about five years. Its abysmal.  It shows the reality that Amerians are living lives of financial precarity, just one layoff (or shutdown) away from real financial trouble. They spend more than they earn and have no margin for error.

Maybe you are the type to think this sorry state of affairs is the fault of the workers; they simply should spend less.  Surely, that’s the problem for some people. But in reality, wages haven’t kept pace with big-ticket monthly costs like housing and health care, and this wage stagnation is often the real reason for precarity.  (I have a lot more on precarity in this story. )

One finding in Bankrate’s research supports this: People who budget, and people who don’t, are both in the same boat when it comes to emergency savings.

“Surprisingly, there is not much of a difference in how people would pay for an unexpected $1,000 expense among those that budget and those that do not. Forty-one percent of those that budget would be able to pay a $1,000 unplanned expense from savings, while 38% of those that do not budget, would be able to do the same thing,” Bankrate says. “The propensity to borrow is virtually equal among those that budget their finances and those that do not.”

Budgets don’t help when there’s nothing to budget.

Back to the main point. A majority of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and that includes government workers.  So get them their paychecks as soon as possible.  It’s not fair to use them as a pawn.

(And if this story rings a bell for you, get to work on an emergency savings plan right away. High-yield online savings rates are going up, finally. That’s a great place to start.)

About Bob Sullivan 1306 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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