The View From Here | Coming Home in the New Year

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Ending a vacation is always hard. After spending a week away, which I was privileged to do with my parents, wife and children last week, there’s the dreaded repacking, followed soon thereafter by the trek home that mysteriously seems to take longer than the trip down.

And yet, despite all the hassle and stress of coming home, despite the discomforting realization that playtime is coming to an end, there’s nothing like that first deep breath after you’ve made it past the front door.

Maybe it’s because of the familiarity of the surroundings or the comfort of routine, but for me at least, dropping the last bag on the floor and finally exhaling brings about as much peace as actually going on vacation. Coming home is a pain, but having arrived is a much needed blessing.

Unfortunately, not everyone can share such blessings.

For whatever reasons, many of us cannot take regular vacations. For whatever reasons — some of them the same — home itself may even be a nebulous concept. The homeless among us, as well as those living paycheck to paycheck, unsure of their next rent or mortgage payment, are united in the sense that while they’re home today, they don’t know where home will be tomorrow, next week or next month. They say that home is where the heart is, but for those who don’t have it, permanence — in a job, in an address — is as much a psychological need as love and affection.

Last week, some of my children wanted to go to a national monument we traditionally visit. It happened to be closed due to the federal government shutdown, leading my children to bemoan politics as they understood it.

What they saw, as tends to happen in a government shutdown — remember the 16-day shutdown of 2013? — was the most external of manifestations of the budget gap: National parks and other government facilities were shuttered. (The current shutdown, officially the third of 2018, is not as bad as five years ago; some private and state agencies have jumped into the void to keep more iconic places, such as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, open for visitors.)

But what is more difficult to appreciate — indeed, I didn’t fully appreciate this until I came home from vacation — is the human toll of the shutdown. Government tends to take on a personality of its own, much like the great leviathan metaphorically pictured by Hobbes. But we frequently forget, unless we ourselves or close friends or family members are government employees, that actual flesh and blood people with wants, desires, hopes, dreams, rent payments and mortgages make up the federal payroll.

In suburban Washington, D.C., where the federal government is a major regional employer, some of the estimated 400,000 furloughed government employees took the opportunity to study Torah with their newfound time off. But to say they were happy about it would be incorrect.

“I have six children,” Paul Werner told a reporter for the Washington Jewish Week as he took part in a study session at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, “and I pay private school tuition.”

Werner noted that government workers received their last paychecks just before the shutdown began at midnight on Dec. 22. Without Congress and the president agreeing on a continuing resolution or an omnibus spending bill — a prospect that seems increasingly unlikely, given the brinksmanship that now passes for governing on Capitol Hill and at the White House — the next one, scheduled for Jan. 11, will be missed. Werner might have to ask for leniency from his creditors. (The federal Office of Personnel Management posted sample form letters as a service to furloughed employees, although the utility of them is debatable.)

Then there’s the issue of morale.

“Outside of the cash flow, I feel very privileged to have my job and I take pride in the work I do, so it’s demoralizing to be told you’re furloughed,” Werner said. “I don’t want to take any free rides. It debases the whole thing on a certain level.”

Commentators have pointed out that after previous shutdowns, Congress has voted to compensate furloughed employees for their back pay, but that prospect is not guaranteed. Furthermore, missing payments to landlords and creditors is no small thing; it can, especially for those without emergency funds, leave people in serious financial distress.

While the roots of the budget impasse are substantive, grounded in the president’s pledge to build a border wall and many legislators’ concerns over the propriety of funding such a project, there is little to be gained by what amounts to both sides playing games with people’s lives. The United States can, and should, do better. On a national level, we’re far away from home.

Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]

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