6 Ways Government Shutdowns Hurt You (Even if You’re Not a Federal Worker)

Government shutdown
Clouds and fog roll across Washington as the budget standoff continues on Oct. 15, 2013. J. David Ake/AP Photo

Congress has until midnight Jan. 19 to pass a spending bill and avoid a government shutdown. The House voted to avert a shutdown late Thursday night, and it’s now up to the Senate to pass the measure with at least 60 votes before the midnight deadline. If the measure passes, it will keep the federal government running until mid-February.

The possibility of a government shutdown happens seemingly every year — sometimes twice — as Democrats and Republicans struggle for power in Congress and pull spending legislation their way.

And the idea of the government shutting down can sound scary if you don’t know what such a move entails.

Even if you’re not a government employee, the screeching halt of federal operations can affect you.

Here’s what you need to know about how shutdowns work — and how your life could be affected by one in the future.

What Happens During a Government Shutdown?

When a spending bill expires before Congress passes a new bill authorizing spending, the federal government shuts down most operations.

With spending stuck in limbo while all parties come to an agreement, the federal government runs out of money, forcing the closure.

During a government shutdown, essential services carry on. These include national security, law enforcement, emergency medical services, air traffic control and more.

But services considered non-essential stop, which can still affect your everyday life.

6 Things That Could Be Tough During a Government Shutdown

Each government shutdown is different, but here are some things that could become more difficult or impossible if federal operations go on hold.

1. Planning a Trip to a National Park or Monument

You can’t go to a national park or monument during a shutdown — they’ll be closed. This includes national zoos and museums too. According to Vox, the 2013 government shutdown cost $500 million in lost tourism income due to national park closures.

2. Getting a Passport

During the last shutdown, the State Department continued passport and visa operations because those functions are funded by fees, not government spending.

We reached out to the National Passport Information Center back in April 2017 when the possibility of a shutdown loomed. The representative we spoke to said it’s unclear how a present-day shutdown would affect services, adding that multiple factors go into determining whether you’ll still be able to obtain a passport during a shutdown.

3. Using Free School Lunch Programs

Free school lunch programs will continue during a government shutdown — as long as it doesn’t last too long. If a shutdown goes on for an extended period, school districts might run out of funds to provide the free meals, which some districts worried would occur during the 2013 shutdown.

4. Signing Up for New Social Security Benefits

Social Security benefits will continue to reach existing enrollees, but new applications for benefits may have to wait until after the shutdown to be processed.

5. Buying a Home

If you were planning to use a federal loan, like a Federal Housing Administration-insured loan or a Veterans Affairs loan, to purchase a house, the agencies will still process it — depending on a few factors.

During the 2013 government shutdown, the FHA released an FAQ stating it would still process single-family loans, though it warned that it could take extra time because of a reduced staff. Delays could occur for other reasons, like if you need to obtain documents from the IRS.

Are you a veteran? Thankfully, it’s unlikely that a shutdown would affect your VA loans.

6. Getting Your Tax Refund

And, perhaps, the worst of all, depending on the time of year and your specific situation: If you’re waiting for a tax refund from the IRS and the government shuts down, you may have to wait until it reopens to get your money.

Hopefully a shutdown isn’t in the near future — but if it is, now you know what to expect.

Kelly Smith is a junior writer and engagement specialist at The Penny Hoarder. Catch her on Twitter at @keywordkelly.

Senior writer and producer Lisa Rowan also contributed to this post.

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