8 Ways a Government Shutdown Will Hurt Women

Like any responsible adult, the U.S. government is supposed to set an annual budget before it starts spending any money. But it couldn’t reach an agreement in time for the start of fiscal year 2011 in October, so the nation’s been running on temporary “continuing resolutions.” The latest continuing resolution ends at midnight today. If no 2011 budget can be reached by then, all “non-essential” government operations will be shutting down immediately. That’s especially bad news for women, since programs benefiting or protecting women are more likely to be among those deemed–you guessed it–non-essential.

A shutdown isn’t as unusual or absurd as it sounds. Seventeen shutdowns occurred between fiscal 1977 and fiscal 1996, the last (and longest) spanning 21 days. Already, federal agencies have begun issuing instructions for the looming shutdown, but they remain sketchy. Agencies providing national security, critical foreign relations and other essentials will keep operating. But what about the rest of the federal government? More specifically, what will happen to women if Congress doesn’t approve a budget or another continuing resolution?

Robert Drago, director of research for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C., ventures an overall prediction:

If the federal government shuts down, it will mainly be men forcing the shutdown, and women and families who will suffer as a result.

Based on previous shutdowns and what little information the government has released, here are some best guesses of where that suffering will hit:

  1. Civil rights. The Department of Justice will halt most if not all of its civil cases. Those include all cases of discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, religion, familial status or national origin.
  2. Health care. Medicare and Medicaid would continue to pay out benefits, at least for the short term. However, no new applications will be processed, and if the shutdown continues, the workers administering the programs might be furloughed, halting payments. Twenty-two million women–one in five adult women–use Medicare for basic health insurance. Fifty-seven percent of the Medicare population are women.
  3. Tax refunds. The shutdown would slow the IRS from processing tax returns, due April 18. This would delay the payment of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the largest government anti-poverty program. Payments from EITC are crucial for many low-income families, 1 in 3 of which are headed by single mothers.
  4. Small business. The Small Business Administration will no longer issue loans. In fiscal year 2009, the SBA backed loans worth about $2 billion to women entrepreneurs.
  5. Federal contracting. The federal government now spends upwards of $535 billion annually on government contracts, and Congress never repaid contractors’ wages lost in previous shutdowns. On February 4, 2011, federal contracting opportunities were expanded so that the government could finally seek to meet its (modest) quota of giving 5 percent of that $535 billion to women-owned small businesses, but obviously none of that matters if the government shuts down.
  6. Workplace protections. The Wages and Hour Division of the Department of Labor plans to furlough all but six of its 1660 employees. That means no enforcement of maternity-leave rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act or of the new workplace breastfeeding protections under the Affordable Care Act.
  7. Labor safety. As in the last shutdown, more than 90 percent of workplace safety activities will grind to halt, except for cases of imminent danger to life or health. That means all ongoing sweatshop investigations will stop. Though U.S.-specific statistics aren’t readily available, 85 percent of sweatshop workers worldwide are young women between age 15 and 25.
  8. Child support payments. A shutdown would mean closure of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, which hunts down deadbeat parents who have moved to a new state to avoid payments.

Overall, 800,000 non-essential federal employees can expect to be furloughed if the government shuts down, 43.5 percent of whom are women. While furloughed employees were reimbursed after the last shutdown, some question remains whether the same would happen again, given the anti-government and anti-spending mindset of many members of Congress.

Additionally, applications for student loans and grants, visas, passports, government employment, Social Security, veterans’ benefits and alcohol, tobacco and firearms licenses will not be processed. National parks, monuments and museums will close. Soldiers could (it is unconfirmed) be expected to continue fighting without pay.

The fiscal year 2011 budget that was proposed by House Republicans (and rejected by Democrats and President Obama) essentially spells a war on women–and you can read more about that in Martha Burk’s upcoming story in the Spring issue of Ms. Meanwhile, while that budget remains mired in debate and controversy, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has released an even-more-radical first proposal [PDF] for the 2012 budget. His plan privatizes Medicare, slashes Medicaid, repeals health-care reform and cuts taxes for millionaires–among other draconian measures.

Ryan’s Medicare proposal could truly endanger women, the primary beneficiaries of the program. As Ezra Klein explains, seniors would either need to “cut back on how comprehensive their insurance is or how much health care they purchase.”

It seems unlikely that Ryan’s proposal will go far, considering the White House has rejected it and the Senate is still controlled by Democrats. But with a shutdown looming and more bitter budget battles ahead, women need to stay hyper-vigilant about how to protect our critical interests–and our lives.

Illustration from Flick user Mike Licht, Notions Capital.