Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is an 81-year-old billionaire who may have committed financial crimes. These characteristics probably explain why, during a a CNBC interview about the government shutdown, he said he didn’t understand why furloughed workers were using food banks. “Because, as I mentioned before, the obligations that they would undertake, say, borrowing from a bank or a credit union, are in effect federally guaranteed,” he said.
The most generous interpretation of Ross’s remarks is that he’s referring to bridge loans or credit cards. Even if we grant Ross a lot of undeserved benefit of the doubt — this is a man who once brandished a can of Campbell’s soup to defend steel tariffs — there are a lot of reasons why neither bridge loans nor credit cards would necessarily help federal workers who are going without pay, as Josh Barro reported for Intelligencer in depth earlier today. Trump, speaking later on Thursday, said Ross “should have said it differently” and then offered his own bizarre spin on the secretary’s remarks:
Trump’s comments are nigh incomprehensible, as is typical. But it is possible to tease out one virulently ignorant germ of an idea. Trump appears to believe that workers who need food can simply go to their town grocery store, where the compassionate neighborhood grocer — a pillar of the community they have a personal relationship with — waits to hand out IOU’s to struggling federal workers. A limited version of this may exist in some places. Some grocery stores have worked with local food pantries in the wake of the shutdown, either by donating food and gift cards or by allowing pop-up food banks in front of their buildings. It is not true, however, that hungry workers in need of a gallon of milk can show up at the local Foodtown and just promise to pay the store back later. We do not inhabit the world of Little House on the Prairie. Half Pint cannot go to the general store and place a dozen eggs on store credit until Pa’s farm starts to make money. If that were possible, workers would have taken advantage of this system already. Instead, they’ve had to resort to other measures. A spokesperson for GoFundMe told New York in an email that they’ve documented around 3,000 campaigns linked to the shutdown, up from 1,000 campaigns two weeks ago. In response to demand, the website started its own relief fund for workers affected by the shutdown. It’s raised $353,740 so far.
Alecia Lane, a management analyst for the Food and Drug Administration, told New York that she was “down to her last dollars” when she started a GoFundMe five days ago. A Navy veteran, Lane said that her retirement pay helps cover her mortgage, but doesn’t meet all of her expenses now that she’s on furlough. “I have two boys. And oh my goodness, they eat so much!” she exclaimed. “I’m at the grocery store every other day.” So far, she’s raised $2,699 of her $5,000 goal. She added that the proceeds might not all go into her bank account. One of her co-workers recently had a baby and was due back at work on January 2; according to Lane, the woman is struggling to pay her electric bill while paying to keep a child-care slot open for her newborn. “I said I would help her out with the money I raised,” she said.
It would be nice if grocery stores really did “work along” with everyone who needs to eat. But that’s not the world we live in, and it’s not how furloughed employees like Lane are putting food on the table.