The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The wall isn’t an emergency, but federal workers' plight is rapidly becoming one

President Trump speaks from the Oval Office on Tuesday. (Carlos Barria/AP)

President Trump spoke for about nine minutes Tuesday night, failing to make the case that the need for a wall at the Mexican border with the United States is an emergency. At the same time, as Democrats pointed out, he did not once mention the emergency caused by his intransigence: the financial crisis hitting the roughly 800,000 federal workers and contractors who are going unpaid as a result of the partial shutdown of the federal government.

If you ever wanted to know what the downsides of government by millionaires and billionaires is, this is as good of an example as you can find. Trump doesn’t have a clue how Americans who don’t inherit fortunes live, and he has little desire to fix that.

This past weekend, Trump claimed federal employees — whether they are still on the job minus salary or officially furloughed — should be doing just fine. “I’m sure that the people that are on the receiving end will make adjustments. They always do," he said on Sunday.

Yes, they will make adjustments. But whether they will be just fine is another issue entirely. Forty-four percent of Americans cannot come up with $400 out of their own resources without turning to credit, begging from family members or beginning to sell off possessions. Increase the number to $1,000, and the number goes up to about 60 percent. In the real world, most people can’t make it financially with “adjustments” for a shutdown that could last “months or even years.”

While Trump claims he can “relate” to the federal workers, the most he knows of financial hardship is the time when, after one of his multiple bankruptcies, the banks he owed money put him on a household and personal budget of $450,000 per month. He survived. He did not need to turn to GoFundMe to pay the rent.

The fact is, despite that Trump is so cheap he once cashed a 13-cent check, he’s never needed to worry about whether he can afford to buy food or pay the mortgage on one of his many residences. That’s not true for federal workers. Federal workers minus paychecks are cutting back on discretionary spending such as holiday gifts for the children and grandchildren, and nondiscretionary spending, such as the rent. Their “adjustments” include such things as selling their plasma and draining personal savings accounts. Their idea of hard times does not involve hitting up their father for a more than $60 million in loans to buy real estate.

Trump, who has survived on the family handout known as inheritance his entire life, was apparently unaware that a government shutdown meant food stamps could get cut, tax refunds would not go out (his administration is now addressing that), and certain housing subsidies would go unpaid. And, despite claiming he’s an ace businessman, Trump didn’t seem to realize that retailers and restaurants in towns with a heavy federal presence will suffer from a lack of traffic if the shutdown goes on. If you aren’t reporting for work, you aren’t heading out for lunch near your office. And there are no “adjustments” for many of these small-business owners. No one is going to return to work and order two lunches to make up for the one they didn’t purchase during the shutdown.

Trump’s lack of knowledge for how the other 99 percent gets by shouldn’t surprise us. Indeed, it’s what we should expect. He’s far from alone, in both politics and the greater business world. Behavioral finance experts have found that wealthier people tend to possess less concern for others than those beneath them on the income or wealth scale and that they are more likely to do everything from blowing through stop signs to taking candy earmarked for children.

In politics, we see how this plays out. The only struggle that’s real to many Republican politicians is their own. Last week, newly elected North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer (R) declared attempts by other members of Congress — some of whom are Republicans — to get Congress to agree to forgo their salary while federal workers are forced to do without theirs “gimmicky.” That raises the question of what he thinks the Trump wall and government shutdown are.

But work is not a hobby or a gimmick. Whether we love or hate our jobs, very few of us would do them for no pay. (And that Trump isn’t taking a salary for serving as president is meaningless. He’s got other sources of income, such as the popularity of his hotels among Saudi lobbyists and Republican politicians.) Meanwhile, Transportation Security Administration security screeners at the nation’s airports are calling in sick at higher than normal rates, and who can blame them? Many of them earn about $30,000 annually; if they can get a side gig, they are likely taking it. They are being asked to work a vital job for no immediate salary, while our president is more concerned about a wall intended to solve a mythical problem at some point in the distant future, instead of the real-life financial harm being done to many people who rely on federal paychecks in the here and now.

Read more:

The Post’s View: The shutdown leaves the most vulnerable federal workers paying the price

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s nothingburger speech

Alexandra Petri: It was good to hear from the president

Erik Wemple: The networks interrupted their programming for the lamest rerun on television

Alyssa Rosenberg: Trump tried to play a normal president on television. The result was very strange.