The government shutdown wasn’t that bad for the politicians. It was terrible for this guy.

Just because they struck a deal doesn't mean everything is right. (Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)
Just because they struck a deal doesn't mean everything is right. (Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

John Anderson lost the government shutdown.

His approval rating didn't fall. No political action committee threatened to primary him. He just lost two weeks' pay, which he'll never get back, and walked right up to the edge of losing his place to live. His story is a reminder that, for all the back-patting Congress is doing today over having finally resolved the debt showdown and re-opened the government, the 16-day closure has already had real, and lasting, human consequences for hundreds of thousands of people.

"I was living week to week" before the shutdown, Anderson told me. "Now I'm living day to day."

He is a line cook at the American Indian Smithsonian Museum on the National Mall. Anderson is not a government employee. He's a contract worker - the government hires his company to make the food for visitors to the museum. When the shutdown closed the museum, Anderson lost his job. He'll now presumably be able to go back to work, but unlike federal workers, he won't get back pay. And he could use that back pay: Anderson is a divorced father of two who usually brings home about $350 a week after taxes and child support. His 16-year-old son lives with him in Washington but commutes by bus and train to high school in Maryland every day.

Anderson has no savings - his wages don't leave much cushion for savings - and struggled through the shutdown to pay his rent, put food on the table and pay for his son to travel back and forth to school. We spoke Wednesday afternoon, as a deal to end the shutdown appeared imminent in Congress. Here's his reaction to that deal, edited for length.

First, we got this sheet of paper that said, we were laid off, and we need to apply for unemployment. I just got custody of my son.

It’s just me and my son. I’m renting this room. I can’t afford to pay for it this week. I worked it out with [the landlords, to lower the rent]. But even now, going back to work, I won’t get paid for another two weeks.

I’m happy that we get to go back. But it’s pissing me off – they used us as pawns in this big ego game. But they didn’t even get what they wanted. It was all for nothing.

We were laid off. We weren’t furloughed. This is ridiculous.

I don’t try to let [my son] see how stressed out it’s making me. I keep saying, we gonna get through, we gonna get through. I don’t want to put all the burden on him, wondering, how are we gonna get our next meal?

I have a background in carpentry. I have some friends still in the business. I kept calling and begging them, any small jobs? So I helped install some toilets. That’s $25 here, $25 there. I’m squeaking it through. But the next two weeks are going to be the hardest for me [while he waits for his paycheck to resume]. I don’t know where the next dollars are coming from. It was like they ignored us, like they don’t care, like we don’t exist.

His son has made it to school every day, Anderson says, sometimes thanks to last-minute offers of help: "Yes, I find a way. The Lord above find a way."

Jim Tankersley is the editor of Storyline, where he explains complex public policies and illuminates their human impact. He's from Oregon, and he misses it.
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