The government shutdown is over but Obama says there “are no winners here.”
Following sixteen days of the partial government shutdown, a bill was finally signed to end it on Wednesday night, just an hour before the U.S. would have otherwise entered a situation where it was unable to pay its bills.
The shutdown began after the Republican House tried to blackmail President Obama into making changes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), by refusing to agree to a budget resolution unless the desired changes were made. The President, however, made it adamantly clear that he would not make any concessions to the demands of the hardline Republican faction, which he deemed “extraneous.” Obama charged the uncooperative Republican House members with attempting to “[put] the hard-earned progress of the American people at risk,” for the sake of party politics. “You don’t get to extract a ransom for doing your job, for doing what you’re supposed to be doing anyway, or just because there’s a law there that you don’t like” President Obama told his opposition, over two weeks ago.
As the deadline for reaching an agreement, before the U.S. would otherwise enter bankruptcy, edged closer and closer last week, President Obama stuck to his no “ransom” position, forcing the Republicans to eventually back down.
On Thursday morning the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who had been temporarily laid off – as a result of the shutdown – returned to their jobs. Reah Suh, assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, speaking on behalf of government, had a somewhat apologetic message for the workers, who were told that the government appreciated their sacrifices, and understood that the shutdown had imposed hardships on them, their families, and those who they usually serve in their daily roles.
In direct contrast, the message President Obama gave to those members of Congress who had lent themselves to Tea Party aspirations, to cripple Obamacare, was firm and condemning. Reiterating earlier statements, Obama criticized the Republican’s tactics as irresponsible and having undermined the fundamental principles of American democracy, saying, “You don’t like a particular policy or a particular president? Then argue for your position. Go out there and win an election. Push to change it, but don’t break it. […] That’s not being faithful to what this country’s about.”
Obama also made it clear that the end of the shutdown should not be considered a cause for celebration, saying that there were “no winners.” This referred not just to the Democrats and Republicans, but also to the American public.
Although the shutdown, generally speaking, failed to damage Obamacare, it did cause immense problems for millions of Americans, and overwhelmingly so for Afrikan Americans, who were hit particularly hard.
During the shutdown the Small Business Administration (SBA), which usually approves roughly 250 loans a day for small businesses, was forced to close. A significant number of Black businesses access loans through the SBA and during the first week of the shutdown Representative Donald Payne, Jr. (D-NJ), who serves on the Small Business Committee in Congress, said that as a result of the SBA closure, “Black businesses are impacted at a higher number than the general population.” Even before the shutdown, it had become harder for Afrikan Americans to obtain loans for a small business via the SBA, which showed 1% reduced contracting with Afrikan American firms last year.
Referring to the inequitable damage to Black businesses whenever there is a major financial crisis, Harry Alford, chief executive officer of the Washington-based National Black Chamber of Commerce, said “When big businesses catch a cold, we catch pneumonia.
Black businesses were already suffering before the shutdown, obtaining only 7.2% of government financial awards last year, despite the fact that Black Americans comprise approximately 13% of the population. Even more, this figure represents a downward trend. The number of awards given specifically to Black-owned small businesses has decreased by 6.5% since 2010, which is more than four times greater than the overall decrease in awards given, meaning that Black business owners are disproportionately being denied financial assistance.
Afrikan Americans were disproportionately affected by the shutdown in areas other than business, too. Almost one fifth of federal workers are Afrikan American and therefore tens of thousands of Black workers did not receive pay over the past two weeks, having been ordered to stay home and miss work. At the same time, the closure of a number of Head Start education programs across the country particularly affected Black children from low-income families, who represent over a third of the children who access those programs.
Obama’s somber announcement that there were “no winners” to emerge from the shutdown also testified to the fact that the Republican submission on Wednesday night only marked one ‘loss’ in an ongoing party war, centered on the ACA. Earlier in the year it was no minor victory for far-right Republicans when the Supreme Court ruled that the expansion of Medicaid, which is a major feature of Obamacare, will be subject to state law.
In 2010 when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), standing next to him was an 11 year-old Afrikan American boy, Marcelas Owens. Owens had captured the attention of Democratic Sen. Patty Murray at a press conference, when he told her the story of his mother, which made it painfully obvious why the ACA was so desperately needed. “My mom was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension in 2006. She missed so much work she lost her job. And when my mom lost her job, she lost her health care. And losing her health care ended up costing her life,” said Owens, who then appealed to Murray to make sure the ACA got passed, and to not “let anybody die like [his] mom did.”
The Supreme Court’s decision to make Medicaid a state matter means that the experience of Marcelas Owens’s mother will continue to be that of many more Afrikan Americans, who will remain uninsured despite the ACA being brought into effect. The Republican states, refusing to extend Medicaid, are homes to over two thirds of Afrikan Americans who cannot afford health insurance. Particularly in Southern states, where the majority of low-income Afrikan Americans live – including Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia – the GOP have successfully prevented Obama’s ambitions, for a more fair health system, from being realized.
The government shutdown did not create disproportionate suffering among Afrikan Americans – financially, educationally, and medically – but simply intensified existing racial inequalities. The shutdown brought these issues to the media’s attention, and so the challenge now will be making sure that these inequities are not forgotten about in the weeks and months to come.
It remains to be seen what measures the government will take to start addressing these issues of inequality, but certainly it will be no easy task. The agreement made last Wednesday to end the shutdown was only short-term. The government will receive funding until January 15, 2014 and the debt cushion will extend to February 7, 2014, but there remains the possibility of another shutdown three months down the line if Congress is once again unable to arrive at an agreement.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, speaking after the shutdown ended, predicted that it will now be even more difficult for Obama to pass new legislation and policies, warning that, “[far-right Republican members of Congress] will be more embittered, more angry. They will find more ways to go after Obama.”
Author: Greta Tugwell