A federal worker in Morgantown, W.Va., took to Facebook this week to sell welding tools, left behind by his deceased father-in-law. Another, a die-hard Star Wars fan in Woodbridge, Va., did the same with a life-size copy of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber. A single father in Indiana hosted a sale on eBay with five pages of things found around the house, including Bibles, Nintendo bedsheets and Dr. Seuss neckties.
“Sells for $93.88 at Walmart. Asking $10,” a government worker wrote on a Craigslist ad for a Lulu Ladybug rocking chair. “We need money to pay bills.”
As hundreds of thousands of federal workers brace for their first missed paychecks of the government shutdown this week, some have become immersed in the frantic financial calculus of choosing what they can live without.
In the United States, living paycheck to paycheck is disturbingly common, regardless of profession or location. A recent report from the Federal Reserve revealed how little cushion most Americans have in their budgets: Four in 10 adults say they couldn’t produce $400 in an emergency without sliding into debt or selling something, according to the figures that surveyed households in 2017, a relatively prosperous year for the American economy.
But the shutdown, which began just before Christmas, took many federal workers by surprise and is lasting longer than most expected. That has left furloughed employees stuck at home, sifting through garages and closets, basements and bookshelves to find possessions and personal treasures to sell.
“You have to take a kind of coldhearted look at things around you and decide what would be marketable to someone else,” said Jay Elhard, on furlough from his job as a media specialist at Acadia National Park in Maine.
Elhard, who has worked for the National Park Service since 2005, started a Facebook group for people to buy items from furloughed federal workers. But so far it’s just been him trying to sell things: copies of his graduate thesis from Columbia University about wolves in Yellowstone, a carbon-fiber backpack he took on hiking trips, a painting of Polychrome Overlook in Denali National Park. The painting was a window to his years running the roads there as a park ranger. Now he’s hoping it’ll sell so he can put the money toward his next mortgage payment.
Guidance from government offices have provided little comfort so far, some workers said. No one in Washington seems to know how long the partial government shutdown will go on, but there’s been little reason to believe the end is close. Meanwhile, the Office of Management and Budget has provided sparse advice other than encouraging workers to contact creditors and mortgage companies before debts become due. The Coast Guard published a tip sheet this week suggesting employees hold garage sales or sell things online, walk dogs or babysit, or “become a mystery shopper” to get by.
“Bankruptcy is a last option,” the tip sheet read.
“While it may be uncomfortable to deal with the hard facts, it’s best to avoid the ‘hide your head in the sand’ reaction,” the document read. “Stay in charge of the situation by getting a clear understanding of what’s happening.”
The Coast Guard removed the tip sheet from its website late Wednesday morning after The Washington Post inquired about it.
The suggestions do not “reflect the Coast Guard’s current efforts to support our workforce during this lapse in appropriations,” said Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride, a service spokesman. “As such, this guidance has been removed.”
President Trump, when asked about the hardship facing workers, said federal employees “are on my side.”
“You take a look at social media, so many of those people saying ‘it’s very hard for me, it’s very hard for my family, but Mr. President you’re doing the right thing. Get it done.’ They’re patriots,” he said.
Anna Cory, a librarian in Morrisville, N.C., who works as a contractor for the Environmental Protection Agency, is running a “Government shutdown online yard sale” on Facebook, where she’s selling rare books from the 1800s. She held the worn leather volumes in her hands to photograph them, splaying the most beautiful pages to show off sheet music and ornate portraits.