"Non-essential" lives?

Nicole Colson reports on the effects of the government shutdown on ordinary people.

A mother and daughter wait for help at a government office

AS THE federal government shutdown enters a third week, cutting off funds for so-called "non-essential" government services, it's more and more clear that what those in power consider "non-essential" is very different from what we do.

Educational programs like Head Start, nutrition assistance to women and children, national parks, some medical services at the National Institutes of Health--all are among the many services closed down outright or facing the threat of their funding running out during the shutdown.

But at the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) employees and Customs and Border Protection agents are "still...around to enforce immigration law because the operations are 'necessary for safety of life and protection of property,'" according to Alternet's Esther Yu-Hsi Lee. This means that ICE agents are still arresting and deporting some 1,120 immigrants per day.

Ruthie Epstein, a policy analyst for the ACLU, told Common Dreams, "Immigration and Customs Enforcement told us October 1st that enforcement resources would continue to be fully deployed. For people in detention, the government plans to continue deporting on pace."

So the federal shutdown won't stop the Obama administration from passing a terrible milestone in the next few weeks: 2 million immigrants deported in the five years since Barack Obama took office--more than any other president.

But when it comes to immigrants who are appealing deportation proceedings or requesting asylum, they're non-essential. "The Executive Office for Immigration Review will likely furlough 70 percent of its 1,339 employees, including those working in the immigration courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals," Lee reported. "Only 153 attorneys will continue to work, meaning that the processing time for immigration cases will be significantly delayed."

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THIS CONTRAST shows the twisted priorities of the federal government--evident even when that government is shut down.

And that's far from the extent of it. Consider the recent letter written to the Seattle weekly paper The Stranger by a reader named Alex, who had been furloughed from a job providing resources and information to those with cancer:

I work as a supervisor for the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service (CIS). CIS is a free, confidential service where anyone--general public, cancer patients, family members, student, researchers or physicians--can call, e-mail or online chat with information specialists who will research whatever questions they have...

It is an office full of caring, dedicated people who genuinely take pride in helping desperate callers. This isn't an easy job. It is never easy to talk to a parent whose young child is dying and is looking for any hope, or to someone who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but doesn't have the medical literacy to understand what that means...I'm a single parent with two kids five days out of the week. This sucks financially. Like, a lot. But I'm still wrapped up in the inanity of all these talented, empathetic people I work with who can't be doing the work they are paid to do.

Alex's story is one of many showing the impact that the shutdown is having on the lives of ordinary people.

Last year, Michelle Langbehn was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. After trying several different treatment options, Langbehn began applying for a clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and seemed to be on track to be accepted--until the shutdown.

Instead, she was informed that, due to the shutdown, new patients are no longer being accepted in the trial. She is now one of an estimated 200 patients being turned away from NIH clinical trials each week that the shutdown goes on. "I'm frustrated to say the least," Langbehn told the Washington Post.

When asked if she had a message for Congress, Langbehn stated, "I want to tell them that lives are at stake. This isn't just a matter of inconvenience. This is a matter of life or death. I'm not just doing this for myself. There are 200 people who are trying to get into clinical trials each week. I want to speak for all of us."

The shutdown has affected public health--perhaps most obviously in a multi-state salmonella outbreak in chicken that caused hundreds to fall ill and dozens to be hospitalized.

Dr. Chris Braden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) division of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases, told Wired.com's Maryn McKenna that his division normally totals 300 workers, but he was left with 40 people determined to be "essential." The CDC eventually got 30 more people deemed "essential," but only 10 of them went to work in Braden's division, and not all of them were working on the PulseNet program that investigates foodborne illnesses.

As of October 10, according to McKenna, the outbreak was "challenging the shutdown-limited abilities of the food-safety and disease-detective personnel." It wasn't until after 278 people across 18 states had been sickened by an antibiotic-resistant outbreak of salmonella that the CDC's outbreak-tracking team was finally re-designated as an "essential" service.

This salmonella outbreak didn't become a massive public health crisis, but it's obvious that already understaffed and underfunded U.S. public health agencies are being stretched to their limits--with the potential for a worse crisis down the road.

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THE SHUTDOWN is not only slowing down the federal response to contaminated food. It is also taking the food out of the mouths of children.

In Arkansas, the Fort Smith Children's Emergency Shelter, which provides emergency aid to abused children, was left scrambling and asking the public for donations when it received a notice on September 30 that the $2,000 grant it usually receives to help feed the children in its care wouldn't be coming in this month.

"I think irrespective of your political beliefs, when the government shuts down and designates essential services...[f]eeding kids should be essential," Executive Director Jack Moffett told ArkansasMatters.com.

Also on the chopping block during the shutdown: food assistance to poor families through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. On October 8, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced it would stop issuing vouchers for WIC's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program. That left 20 percent of recipients--about 50,000 mothers and their children--who hadn't yet picked up their vouchers with no assistance for the month.

"I got no actual notification from anyone," 21-year-old Chelsea Combs told the Huffington Post. "People who really do need help are getting it taken away because Congress can't come to an agreement."

Nationally, the $7 billion WIC program serves 9 million mothers and babies who are poor and at risk of malnutrition. While North Carolina later announced it would reverse its decision and extend funding for WIC for the month, across the U.S., several states have made it clear that contingency funding will run out soon if the shutdown does not come to an end.

Jessica Lawson, a graduate student and WIC recipient who tweets under the popular "Feminist Hulk" profile, drew attention to the potential cuts in public resources for those in need. As she told National Public Radio:

One of my closest friends is a foster parent on WIC. She can't afford to accept a child placement right now, because WIC's funding beyond this month is uncertain. Since I began this website, I've received a lot of e-mails from new parents who are terrified about making it through the week...

We got word at the end of last week that contingency funding had been made available to make sure WIC could get through the rest of the month. Offices reopened, and business continues, but most state offices will tell you that November remains pretty uncertain...

I get weary when I hear people urging poor families to simply lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Just to get from day to day when you are hungry and scared takes extraordinary energy--those bootstraps are already stretched to the max for the task of daily survival. I want to assume good will, and hope that the people who oppose WIC have simply never been in the position to direly need it.

Fox News has reported regularly on the closure of the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., and the angry response of veterans. Guess how many times it's interviewed mothers facing poverty and malnourished children.

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WHILE CANCER patients go without potentially life-saving treatments, poor women wonder how they're going to feed their children, and Head Start programs are being shut down, we can rest easy that Congress still have their gym to run around in.

That's right. As Think Progress reported on October 8:

A House aide confirmed to ThinkProgress that the House member's gym is open. The House gym features a swimming pool, basketball courts, paddleball courts, a sauna, a steam room and flat-screen TVs. While towel service is unavailable, taxpayers remain on the hook for cleaning and maintenance, which has been performed daily throughout the shutdown. There are also costs associated with the power required to heat the pools and keep the lights on.

The decision to classify the House gym as "essential" was reportedly made with the direct involvement of the office of House Speaker John Boehner--you know, one of those people always talking about "wasteful" government spending.

But Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) wasn't shy about defending the gym as "essential": "This job is very stressful, and if you don't have a place to vent, you are going to go crazy, and that's why I've used it all these years."

Also deemed "essential" for lawmakers is the Capitol subway system, which allows members of Congress and their staff to walk underground from their office buildings to the Capitol. "And for folks who feel like relaxing," explained the Huffington Post, "there's a special little subway car--a few of them even have drivers--to get them there in a ride that takes about 30 seconds. The trains remain staffed and functioning during the shutdown."

The more media-savvy members of Congress are "donating" their salaries during the shutdown to various charities or pet projects--perhaps recognizing that constituents might be offended by politicians enjoying regular paychecks from their six-figure annual salary, while hundreds of thousands of federal workers are furloughed.

But plenty of members of Congress couldn't wrap their mind around that one. North Carolina Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers seemed almost amused by the idea that she might forgo any of her $174,000-a-year-plus-benefits salary. "I need my paycheck--that's the bottom line," Ellmers told North Carolina station WTVD in a phone interview. "I understand that maybe there are members who are deferring their paychecks, and that's admirable. I'm not in that position."

Once the media began circulating the quote, Ellmers did a quick walkback--and decided to forgo her salary, too, for the duration of the shutdown.

But Ellmers and other members of Congress need to be reminded that the rest of us need our paychecks, too, paltry as they may be in comparison to hers--and the government services that so many working-class people rely on just to get by each day.