How a government shutdown could impact Americans

With the government on the brink of a shutdown this week as Congress remains at an impasse on a funding deal, federal departments and agencies have begun the mandatory process of planning to bring nonessential functions to a halt.

The Office of Management and Budget reminded senior agency officials Friday to update and review shutdown plans.

Every department and agency has its own set of plans and procedures. That guidance includes information on how many employees would get furloughed, which employees are essential and would work without pay, how long it would take to wind down operations in the hours before a shutdown, and which activities would come to a halt. Those plans can vary from shutdown to shutdown.

Should Congress fail to pass a short-term spending bill to keep the proverbial lights on, a shutdown could have enormous impacts on all Americans, in areas from air travel to clean drinking water.

The nearly 4 million Americans who are federal employees will feel the effect immediately. Essential workers will remain on the job, but others will be furloughed until the shutdown is over. None will be paid during the impasse.

For many of them, a shutdown would strain their finances, as it did during the record 35-day funding lapse in 2018-2019.

“We had thousands of members across the country who returned holiday presents because they needed the cash, missed a mortgage payment, took out short-term loans and ran up their credit card debt because they had no paychecks for a month,” said Doreen Greenwald, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 workers in 35 agencies. “They stood in line at food banks, pulled their children from child care, were unable to put gas in their cars and begged creditors for grace. This is not how the United States of America should treat its own employees.”

On average, members of the American Federation of Government Employees earn between $55,000 and $65,000 a year, while hourly workers earn an average of $45,000 annually. But thousands make closer to $15 an hour, or $31,200 a year.

“Most of our members live paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford to miss one payday, let alone more,” said Everett Kelley, president of the union. “That’s why we are calling on Congress to do its job and pass a budget to prevent a government-wide shutdown.”

The American Federation of Government Employees is the largest federal employee union with 750,000 members in nearly every agency of the federal and Washington, DC, governments. Its members include health care professionals, correctional and law enforcement officers, park rangers, Transportation Security Administration agents and Social Security workers.

Here are some of those impacts that Americans can expect:


The White House is sounding alarms about massive disruptions to air travel as tens of thousands of air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration personnel work without pay. During the 2019 shutdown, hundreds of TSA officers called out from work – many of them to find other ways to make money.

The White House has warned that there could potentially be “significant delays and longer wait times for travelers at airports across the country.”

And some passport facilities could close in the event of a shutdown, the State Department’s 2022 guidance states.

The economy

There could also be massive economic implications. In the event of a shutdown, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says it will stop releasing data, including key figures on inflation and unemployment. A lack of crucial government data would make it difficult for investors and the Federal Reserve to interpret the US economy.

The Small Business Administration would not provide new loans to any businesses, according to 2021 guidance.

And the Commodity Futures Trading Commission “will cease the vast bulk of its operations,” including market oversight, according to its 2021 guidance.

Public health and safety

There will be impacts to public health and safety across a variety of agencies should the government shut down.

While emergency public health measures, outbreak response and laboratory functions will remain in place, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that “other public health activities will be functioning at a reduced capacity.”

The Food and Drug Administration, the White House warns, “could be forced to delay food safety inspections for a wide variety of products all across the country.”

And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration “would be forced to limit workplace inspections,” the White House warns, putting worker safety at risk.

There could also be risks to drinking water, the White House warns, as the Environmental Protection Agency rolls back “most” of its inspection activity at hazardous waste sites and drinking water and chemical facilities. The White House also suggested that “efforts to address dangerous contaminants like PFAS – which are linked to severe health effects, including cancer – would be delayed, and cleanup activities at Superfund sites would slow or cease.”

Arts, culture and the great outdoors

A government shutdown could affect some of the country’s most beloved treasures such as museums and national parks. All Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo would be closed, according to 2021 guidance, though a shutdown would not affect zoo animal care. Some presidential libraries would be closed, according to the National Archives and Records Administration’s plans.

And it remains unclear whether the National Park Service could close national park sites or surrounding facilities, but that has occurred in past shutdowns, with trash piling up, toilets overflowing and visitors committing acts of vandalism while the park service’s workforce was reduced.

Student loans and education

The Department of Education previously warned that there could be “some level of disruption” to large student aid programs, including Pell Grants, during a shutdown. “As a result of the permanent and multi-year appropriations, some basic operations (such as processing Free Applications for Federal Student Aid, FAFSA, disbursing Pell Grants and Federal Direct Student Loans, and servicing Federal student loans) could continue for a very limited time; these operations could also experience some level of disruption due to a lapse,” the department said in its 2021 guidance.

The nation’s schools could also face disruptions in federal funding, with the Department of Education warning in that guidance that a delay beyond one week “would severely curtail the cash flow to school districts, colleges and universities.” That memo also notes that approximately 1 in 10 school districts receives more than 15% of its funds from federally funded programs.

The White House also warns that approximately 10,000 children across the country “would immediately lose access to Head Start” programs, impacting some of the nation’s youngest citizens.

Food assistance

Those enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as food stamps are formally known, will receive benefits through October, but what happens after that is unknown, according to the US Department of Agriculture. However, the agency does not have sufficient funding to support normal operations of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, beyond a few days into a shutdown – though individual states may have additional money to continue the program.

Food banks won’t be able to place new orders and some of their existing deliveries could be disrupted.

Plus, a government shutdown would lead to a delay in federal reimbursements to Meals on Wheels, which could force some community-based programs to suspend meal services; initiate or expand waiting lists; reduce the number of meals they deliver or the number of days on which they deliver; or even shut down, said the nonprofit, which delivers meals to more than 2.8 million seniors annually.

Housing assistance

The 2018-2019 shutdown caused uncertainty for tens of thousands of low-income tenants who rely on the federal government to help pay their rent. The Department of Housing and Urban Development wasn’t able to renew roughly 1,650 contracts with private building owners who rent to poor Americans, many of them elderly or disabled. The agency asked landlords to draw on their reserves to cover any shortfalls.

HUD officials suggested at the time that the expiration of the rental contracts likely wouldn’t prompt landlords to begin eviction proceedings immediately. But the building owners may have had to delay repairs or suspend services they provide, such as transportation, after-school care or social programs, experts said. It’s still unclear how many contracts would be impacted by a shutdown this time.


The Federal Election Commission, the country’s main agency related to securing elections and enforcing federal campaign finance law, would be severely impacted by a shutdown.

“Virtually all core agency functions” of the FEC would cease, per the agency’s plans. That includes review of campaign finance disclosure reports and enforcement of the Federal Election Campaign Act, as well as assistance to campaign and political committee treasurers and members of the public on campaign finance laws.


Numerous government agencies involved in research would be forced to cease those efforts during a government shutdown. For instance, NOAA – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – would end “most research activities.” And no new National Science Foundation grants would be awarded.


Efforts to recruit new hires across government agencies would be significantly curtailed during a shutdown. It could impact recruitment, selection and placement for the Peace Corps; all civil service jobs at the State Department, according to its 2022 guidance; and all new contractors at the Defense Department, among many others.

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