The partial government shutdown that began during the quiet of the holidays is about to become the longest in the nation’s history. And on Friday, it will start truly hitting home for hundreds of thousands of federal employees: For the first time, their scheduled paychecks will not arrive.
The missed payments will represent a turning point in the three-week standoff, inflicting a damaging financial burden on federal workers and deepening the impact on the broader economy. But it would only get worse from there if the impasse dragged on indefinitely. A shutdown of unprecedented length—one that, in President Donald Trump’s words, could last “months, or even years”—would have unprecedented adverse effects on national life, reaching corners of American society that have previously viewed the constant partisan budget fights in Washington as an abstraction.
Already, the shutdown has shuttered many national parks and museums, cut off key sources of income for government contractors, delayed payments of housing subsidies, and slowed or stopped routine public-health inspections of food and environmental hazards.
If the shutdown were to continue for weeks or months, those effects would cascade, and the outcomes would be bleak: Halted payments of food stamps could force many of the 38 million people who rely on them into even deeper poverty, while delays in housing assistance could force scores of others out of their homes. Most of the federal court system will soon run out of money, and delays in the processing of home and farm loans could extend the shutdown’s impact throughout the country. Forcing hundreds of thousands of airport personnel, federal-prison guards, and other law-enforcement officers to work without pay for weeks or even months on end would further strain the system and could lead to an exodus of civil servants to the private sector in search of paying jobs, or into the streets in protest. And the ensuing economic instability could send the stock market into another tumble.