The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Devastated by one shutdown, dreading the next

Vicki Ibarra asks for money from a friend on the phone as she tries to get enough to save her repossessed car at her home on Feb. 4 in Fresno, Calif. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

FRESNO, Calif. — The federal government had finally called her back to work after 35 days, but now Vicki Ibarra wondered how she could afford to get there. Her used sedan had been repossessed by the bank a few days earlier. The family minivan had a faulty engine and barely any gas. Her Internet had been cut off a month into the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, so she used a friend’s wireless password to log into her bank account. There was $0.38 left in checking and $7.80 in savings, the sum total of 16 years at the IRS.

“This is like disappearing into quicksand,” she said to her friend, Ernie Delgado. “Even once I get back at work, how am I supposed to dig out?”

“You need to start asking for help,” he said.

“Who?” she said. “How? That’s never been me.”

Ibarra, 45, had built her adult life on the principle of self-sufficiency — raising two children by herself, adopting her teenage niece, devoting her career to a government job because it promised meaningful work and 9-to-5 dependability. The salary was modest at about $35,000 a year, so she often stayed late to work overtime. Even when her credit cards were maxed out, she’d been able to make at least the minimum payments. Even if she sometimes needed an extension on her rent, she’d spent 25 years in the same two-bedroom house, where a small sign was posted on a bedroom wall: “Get up and go get it!”

Employees of Unispec Enterprises, a federal contractor, lost not only their job but their health care during the shutdown. (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

That was the person she had been right up until the government shutdown began at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 22, forcing her to miss one paycheck and then another, leaving her with no income for the first time since she turned 18. Ibarra had been told once during an IRS training that about 60 percent of American taxpayers live paycheck to paycheck and that 40 percent are unable to afford a $400 emergency. Her first emergency had been the missed car payment, which forced her lease into default because she was already behind. Next went her cable. Then came two unpaid credit cards bills and a rent check that was almost three weeks overdue.

She’d tried to fend off bill collectors by selling some of her furniture and asking strangers for help in an online fundraiser. “I’ve always been an independent lady who never needed any help,” she’d written. “I don’t know what to do.”

The one thing she hadn’t done yet was ask for money from her friends or family members, several of whom had come to rely on her. She was still helping to support her adult daughter, who had a new baby. She often cooked big meals and then delivered to-go packages to her friends and siblings. “I’m taking it from you at the IRS, so I might as well give some back,” she liked to tell them. Now she took out her phone and started writing a text message to one of her old friends.

“You know I’m proud, so it kills me to ask you this,” she wrote, and then deleted it.

“This shutdown has me hurting. Any way you can help?” she wrote, and deleted it again.

“Let’s catch up sometime!” she wrote finally, before hitting send.

She went into her bedroom to choose her outfits for the upcoming week, laying out possibilities on a blowup mattress. She’d sold her bed to a friend a month earlier, after she heard President Trump say the shutdown would last until Congress paid for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, whether that took months or a year. Ibarra’s own financial margin had usually been measured down to the hour even before the shutdown — making payments up against deadlines, borrowing from one credit card to pay down another, spending exactly what she earned to cover essentials for her son and her niece. It was a high-wire act that unfolded each two-week pay cycle, and she was able to pull it off because of the predictability of her government job. Every other Wednesday, she could count on about $900 being deposited into her bank account after deductions, so she could pay down her debts before catastrophe came.

She picked out earrings for the next morning and set her alarm. Her co-workers sometimes joked that she was the perfect fit for the detail-oriented IRS, always at her desk with a cup of coffee five minutes before her shift began. She spent her workdays checking line items in strangers’ tax returns and then brought that meticulousness back home, keeping spreadsheets of her own finances and a binder of laminated certificates commemorating her “loyal government service” for five, 10, and then 15 years.

Her cellphone rang and she answered it. “Hey, you got my text?” she said, and then her friend said he had just read about the end of the shutdown.

“So I guess this is congratulations,” he told her. “They actually made a deal? You’re getting paid back for all of this?”

She thought about telling him how her back pay, whenever it arrived, would cover less than half of what she now owed in overdue payments and late charges. She thought about telling him how the deal in fact only promised federal funding for the next three weeks, at which point she could be out of work again. She thought about all of the things she had already forfeited to the shutdown, and how much she’d always valued being able to provide for herself.

“Yep, it’s over,” she told her friend. “I’m back at work tomorrow. It’s the best kind of news.”

“So you’re okay then? You’re making it?”

“I hung in,” she said. “You know me. I’m a go-getter.”

She awoke the next morning at 5:30. She straightened her hair, drained the last $7.80 in her savings account to buy gas, and made it to work five minutes before her shift. She ate a packed lunch from a food bank, stayed after work for a voluntary training session, and then came back home to find more bills waiting in her mailbox.

She owed her cellphone company $190. The bank was giving her nine more days to pay $3,200 for her car — the accumulation of missed payments, late penalties, interest and repossession charges. If she failed to pay, the bank would resell her car to someone else and charge her the difference in price, possibly as much as $10,000.

“We are hoping to be able to work with you as a loyal, long-standing government employee,” one letter read.

She had first applied to work at the IRS because she believed the words “government employee” would give her clearance into a different kind of life. She’d gotten pregnant with her daughter during high school, dropped out, and then gone back a few years later to earn a degree. She worked as a bartender, a waitress, and a secretary before a relative gave her an application for the IRS. “Trade your job for a career,” it read. “Use your talents to serve the American public and fund our future. You really can help make our nation a better place.”

It had taken her a few tries to get hired, first for seasonal work and then full-time. She had risen from data entry clerk all the way up to tax code instructor. The IRS had needed someone to relocate to Texas, so she agreed to move for six months. A boss suggested she learn more about IT, so she enrolled in college classes at night, until the fatigue of 15-hour days culminated in a series of minor strokes that required her to wear a heart monitor at her desk.

Her friends sometimes told her she was sacrificing too much for an $18-an-hour job, but she considered it an investment. She was committed to the government, and the government was committed to her. It was a contract that came with sick leave, decent dental coverage and the likelihood of promotion. She decorated her home with tiny American flags and small posters testifying to the value of commitment and hard work.

“Work from your heart. Love what you do.”

“Loyalty is always rewarded.”

She had never cared either way about politics, or whether there was a concrete wall or a steel barrier or metal slats or nothing at all along the U.S.-Mexico border, but she admired President Trump for his business savvy. She believed he was a tough negotiator, but lately she felt like collateral in one of his deals. “I’m sure that the people that are on the receiving end will make adjustments,” he had said, and she was thinking about how many more adjustments she needed to make when her 15-year-old son walked into her bedroom one afternoon, fidgeting with a tennis ball and looking concerned.

“How real is that?” he asked.

“Not real yet,” she said, even though she’d already visited a low-income housing project a few miles away, a squat green apartment complex where three bedrooms went for $600.

“Seriously,” he said. “I just want to know.”

His baby handprints were cemented on their front porch next to hers, “Baby Johnny, 8-4-05.” He had never lived anyplace else.

“I’m not planning on going anywhere,” she told him, and then she gave him a hug and waved him out of the room. She watched him walk away and took out her cellphone.

“Hey,” she wrote to an ex-boyfriend. “I need a huge favor. Can I borrow some $?”

The ex-boyfriend said he already owed money on his back taxes. A cousin said she was between jobs. Another relative said she’d just invested all of her extra cash in a house.

“I hate to even ask you for this,” Ibarra texted to friends, again and again, until she’d made her way through most of the contacts in her phone, none of whom had $3,000 to spare. She put in an application for part-time work at a store near her house. She sent a few blind Facebook messages to celebrities asking for help. The bank called and left automated messages on her phone saying she had eight days left before it sold her car. Seven days. Five.

She awoke one morning with her alarm at 5:30 and decided to do what she had rarely done: call her manager to tell him she would be late. “I know we’re back at work, but I’m still dealing with the fallout from not working,” she said.

The day before, she had received $1,900 in back pay, which she planned to put toward rent, cable TV and her phone. That still left her with overdue credit card payments and $3,200 for the car. She printed out a few of her recent pay stubs and a statement of her remaining debts. Then she compiled everything into a folder and drove to the bank to apply for a loan.

“So I guess this is your rainy day,” a banker said, leading her to a desk with two chairs. She handed him the pay stubs from the folder. She told him about her 16 years at the IRS, the shutdown, and her repossessed car.

“We’ve had four or five people coming in every day because of the shutdown,” he said. “Let’s see if we can help.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said. She sat back in her chair and waited while he typed into his computer. “What are your interest rates?” she asked.

“It all depends on your credit,” he said.

She winced and reached into her folder for another piece of paper, this one with her credit score in bold: 540. She handed it to him. He glanced at it and then looked back at his computer. “Okay,” he said.

“Just so you know, that number isn’t really me,” she said. “I used to be way up in the 700s, always had real good credit, but then with this whole shutdown one unpaid bill started piling into the next.”

The banker was still looking at the computer.

“I’m not trying to make up excuses,” she said. “I’m just saying, that number is giving you the wrong idea. This isn’t me. I’m a go-getter. I’m a single mother. I usually take care of everything myself.”

“Right, but this is your score,” the banker said. He gestured back to the number in bold, and she nodded.

“No problem,” he said. “We can still do an application and see what comes back.”

“But I’m not going to qualify, right?” she said.

“We can’t really say.”

“But probably not.”

“No,” he said. “I’m sorry. Probably not.”

“So what am I supposed to do?” she asked, her voice rising an octave, the frustration building, eye shadow smudging on her cheeks as her sentences collided. “I can’t even. . . . I’ve been working nonstop, and then it’s just. . . . Can’t you see this isn’t my fault? How am I supposed to prepare for something that’s —”

He reached across the desk and lightly touched her arm. “Look. There are other options,” he said, and he pointed down the street, in the direction of a sprawling shopping center with three payday lenders. She collected her papers off his desk, left the bank and drove a half mile down the road, parking in front of a neon green billboard that read: “Instant Cash Today!”

She sat in the parking lot for a few moments, staring into a storefront. A security guard stood watch at the door. A house painter with white smudges across his jeans spoke to an employee seated behind thick glass. Ibarra could see a poster on the wall advertising a 200 percent annual rate on loans, and she took out a piece of paper and ran through some quick calculations. If she borrowed $3,000, she figured she would have to pay back at least $6,000 over the next year — an extra $500 monthly she couldn’t afford, especially with another potential shutdown just days away.

“Bring us your problems,” read a sign inside the store, and at the moment, she could think of nowhere else to take them. This was how far she had fallen after a 35-day shutdown. She wondered how much worse it would become if the government shut down again.

“Out of one crisis and into another,” she said. Then she touched up her makeup in the rearview mirror, grabbed the spreadsheet of her debts and headed toward the door.