In Mantua, 14 miles west of the Federal Triangle, the sledgehammer of budget cuts scheduled to hit today are a threat to financial stability, an unnecessary reminder of a political system that seems unable to solve problems, and, perhaps worst of all, a symbol of how dramatically perceptions of government work have shifted.
For most of their lives, federal workers in Mantua say, having “United States Treasury” atop their paycheck meant security, pride and a sense of mission. Things change: Now it means having to defend yourself against arguments, from strangers and even from your own relatives, that you’re an overpaid and underworked leech. And in these days of political paralysis, it means that that paycheck suddenly isn’t so secure anymore.
“I can’t even be sure that my pension check will get here,” said Foo, who recently retired after 36 years at State, working on passports, issuing travel warnings, handling sensitive cases of Americans in trouble abroad. “People at OPM [the Office of Personnel Management] have to cut the checks, and if they’re on furlough, maybe the checks don’t come through. It’s going to affect everybody, filter down beyond us. No pension, no spending, it all trickles down.”
As worried as many federal workers are about what a furlough might do to their monthly budgets, some are equally bothered by the growing sense that the careers they chose may now seem unattractive, even unworthy. For the college-educated of Mantua, the federal government was a place to put their smarts to work in service of country. But many of their children have decided that government work isn’t worth the aggravation.
Foo’s son scrapped public service after a summer internship in the government; he works for Dell now. Her daughter is a teacher overseas.
“I don’t know if people will want to go into the government the way it’s thought of now,” Foo said. “For us in the ’70s, it was about security and availability. It wasn’t the highest paid of jobs, but the pay was guaranteed and you couldn’t get laid off.”
“It’s an extremely threatening and highly insulting condition to find myself in,” said a National Defense University professor who lives in Mantua and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his high-level security clearance. “It’s one thing to hear the constant negative drumbeat directed at federal workers from people outside Washington. It’s another thing to have the threat of denial of livelihood.”
In his family, after four generations of military service, there was little question that he would go into public work. And for three decades, he’s loved his job teaching political science to the nation’s future top brass, despite the expectation that he work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day. And he gets the frustration that people beyond the D.C. region feel with politicians. But on a recent visit to Missouri, he got fed up with ritual denunciations of federal workers, and he put a group of complaining citizens through a tough line of questioning: