Transportation Security Administration employees carry boxes of non perishables and bags of produce received from the Community Food Bank at a drive at Newark Liberty International Airport to help government employees who are working without pay during the partial government shutdown, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, in Newark, New Jersey. Credit: Julio Cortez | AP

The recent 35-day government shutdown was the longest in U.S. history. Stories poured in about federal workers who were depleting their limited savings accounts, could not pay their rent or mortgage, and had to go without medication or medical care.

These stories needed to be told, and policymakers should rightfully be criticized for using federal employees as pawns in a political battle over funding for a wall across the southern border. But the economic insecurity that federal employees recently experienced has been the daily reality for years for millions of individuals.

Nearly 40 percent of Americans reported that they would not be able to cover a $400 emergency expense, according to the Federal Reserve Board. The percentage of Americans who experience a significant financial loss — typically measured as a 25 percent decline in available household income — without adequate financial buffers has increased steadily since the mid-1980s. In Maine, nearly 20 percent of residents experienced such a loss in 2010, when the most recent analysis was conducted.

Many Americans are one health care emergency, car repair bill or rent increase away from economic disaster.

This new reality of economic insecurity is the result of economic and political developments. No amount of grit or resilience can make up for the fact that real wages have stagnated while housing, medical, utility and transportation costs have increased.

Over the past few decades, it has become much harder to move up economically. About 90 percent of children born in 1940 earned more than their parents. But only about half of the children born in 1980 earn more than their parents. Children born into poverty are more likely to move into affluence in Canada, Denmark, and the United Kingdom than they are in the United States.

At the same time, the American safety net that can prove so critical for individuals during times of economic stress has been chipped away at for decades. Since 2000, real funding levels for major housing, health, and social service programs fell dramatically. And many safety net programs often fail to reach those in deep poverty.

Instead of dismantling the safety net, we need to expand and improve it. Opponents of social welfare programs argue that they disincentivize work, foster dependency, and substitute public assistance for personal responsibility. But the reality is that individuals often use safety net programs temporarily during short-term periods of economic stress to supplement work and get back on their feet. And these programs are critical for those who are barely getting by in today’s economy.

For example, most working-age SNAP participants already work, but often in unstable and low-wage jobs. And research has shown that by helping with food insecurity, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program helps move millions out of poverty. One analysis found that “SNAP benefits helped 8.4 million people leave poverty behind in 2015. For families with children, food aid helped to reduce the poverty gap — that’s the distance between a family’s income and the federal poverty line — by 37 percent the same year.”

Rather than looking down on those in need, we should be looking around. Poverty and economic insecurity affect our co-workers down the hall, the individual in front of us at the grocery store, our neighbors across the street, and our relatives beside us at the dinner table. These are not people who have made poor decisions or squandered opportunities. They are simply our fellow citizens trying to get by in a structurally unequal economy.

At his 2017 address on U.S. poverty, Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on poverty and human rights, noted that “At the end of the day, particularly in a rich country like the USA, the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power. With political will, it could readily be eliminated.”

The shutdown highlighted how precarious many individuals’ economic situations are. Through our votes, activism, and engagement as concerned citizens, we can choose whether we want to continue chipping away at the already tattered social safety net, or work to rebuild and improve it.

Ryan LaRochelle is a lecturer at the Cohen Institute for Leadership and Public Service at the University of Maine. This column reflects his views and experience and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.