Of all the things that I thought could go wrong with Donald Trump as president, I never expected it to include federal employees being told to hold garage sales in January. But here we are. The suggestion, as reported by The Post, came courtesy of an employee-assistance program affiliated with the U.S. Coast Guard, which advised the Coast Guard’s 8,500 civilian employees missing their paychecks during the government shutdown to “consider making some lifestyle changes." The document suggested employees “look for creative ways to reduce spending, such as getting movies and magazines from the library” and bring in some extra income by such methods as pet-sitting, tutoring, babysitting, working as a mystery shopper and, yes, holding a garage sale in the dead of winter.
“Give yourself credit for doing a tough job! You are taking control of the situation,” the piece less-than-helpfully added. Actually, I thought Donald “I am proud to shut down the government” Trump was in control of the situation, but maybe that’s just me.
The Coast Guard took the advice off its website, but it was far from alone in its efforts. For several weeks, the 800,000 furloughed and working without pay federal employees have received financial guidance combining uselessness with offensiveness. The Office of Personnel Management suggested people approach their landlords and offer to take on tasks such as painting and home repair in return for a break on the rent, and that they should “consult with your their personal attorney” for legal advice if needed – because we all know people living paycheck to paycheck keep a lawyer on retainer. Self-appointed personal finance gurus got in on the action as well. Janet Alvarez, the executive editor of the personal finance website Wise Bread, told the New York Daily News, “You can get really creative about additional sources of income,” and suggested entering the landlord business courtesy of Airbnb, or looking for freelance writing gigs.
No doubt some of these platitudes are well-intentioned, a way of trying to be helpful. Americans are notoriously bad at situations that don’t involve easy and good outcomes. Anyone who suffers a serious illness in the United States can tell you how they are routinely told about various miracle cures and/or people who recovered from what was thought to be terminal cancer.
This sort of advice, however, becomes a way of not just avoiding the main problem but of also allowing the perpetrator to escape blame for the situation. As I documented in my book “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry,” many helpful-sounding suggestions about how to manage your money are a way of putting the responsibility for greater economic and political woes on the individual. Can’t afford child care or that four-figure health-insurance deductible? Cut back on your coffee and avocado toast! Invest your savings! If you can’t pay your mortgage bill, it’s on you. What do you mean you didn’t have a three months of emergency savings set aside, or you can’t get a side gig because you’re already working overtime? You should have known this could happen to you!
Moreover, handing out do-it-yourself financial advice acclimates (intentionally or not) both the affected workers and the greater public to the event. Right-wing personal-finance guru Dave Ramsey, who told his readers during the financial crisis they could refuse “to take part in the recession,” gave that game away during the 2013 shutdown when he said federal workers should take it as a wake-up call and financially plan for future paycheck-free periods because “it’s going to become more and more unstable as the overspending and the increase in the debt continues.” Things did become more unstable -- but not for the reason he claimed. They became more unstable because Trump is in the White House, and Trump no doubt, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) put it, believes workers “can just ask their father for more money.”
Finally, the suggestions to Coast Guard employees and others also make light of the dignity of work, downplaying the skills of both the workers being asked to suddenly hustle and the people currently doing jobs. Here’s one example: I live with a poodle and, as a result, I know several of my neighborhood dog walkers. These are men and women who have spent years building up their businesses and demonstrating their way with animals. If I need someone to walk my family dog, who do you think I’m going to call? Similarly, the furloughed workers have spent years honing their expertise. A tax auditor or food inspector should be allowed to do the job for which they trained and are paid, not forced to scrounge for gigs on TaskRabbit. Work is not a hobby, and workers are not interchangeable. It’s insulting to everyone involved to pretend otherwise.
Furloughing government workers without pay or, even worse, expecting them to show up and do the job without letting them know when they will receive a check for it is unacceptable. We shouldn’t be asked to tolerate and cope with it, not even in a world-weary resigned way. It’s the sort of thing that happens in tottering, kleptocratic regimes. It shouldn’t occur in the United States.
But let’s not end on a pessimistic note. In the spirit of personal finance, I’ll share some advice you can truly use to take “control” of your financial future. Next time we vote for a president, pull a lever for someone who knows what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck. My guess is they won’t be so cavalier about yours.