The U.S. is on the brink of another shutdown, and Black Americans could feel the brunt of the potential furloughs and chaos brought on by Congress.

Black workers make up 13% of the total U.S. population but nearly 20% of the federal workforce.

In the short term, the effects of a shutdown might not be too noticeable, explained Michael Neal, a principal research associate in the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute. But if the government is closed for several weeks or more, we’ll really start to see the impact.

Not only would Black workers be hit the hardest, “but they also wouldn’t have as much savings, on average, to replace their lost income,” he said, referring to the fact that Black households have less emergency savings than their white counterparts. “You also have to think about how some government services will be affected — SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], housing security — and what this disruption could mean for Black workers.”

Rent, gas, child care — if House Republicans fail to pass funding legislation to stave off a shutdown at the end of the month, the country’s nearly 4.4 million federal workers will still need to take care of their usual expenses, even though they won’t get paid until Congress reopens the government.

While employees’ paychecks will be on hold, members of Congress won’t be directly affected; they’ll continue to be paid. This distance between the people who make decisions and the people who must live with the consequences of those decisions only adds to workers’ frustration.

As the Sept. 30 deadline to pass a new spending bill approaches, here’s what you need to know about the dynamics of a shutdown.

When does a shutdown happen?

Sept. 30 is the end of the fiscal year and thus the deadline for Congress to determine how it’s going to appropriate funding for the government that begins on Oct. 1. If it fails to do this — as seems likely at this point, since House Speaker Kevin McCarthy hasn’t been able to marshal the Republican votes needed to pass anything — a shutdown will occur.

Though essential employees — think law enforcement officers and air traffic controllers — will remain on the job, most federal workers will be furloughed until the impasse ends. And none will be paid until lawmakers cut a deal, a situation that will strain the finances of people who live paycheck to paycheck.

Notably, senior citizens will continue to receive their Social Security payments, since the program is considered mandatory spending and isn’t funded via short-term appropriations bills, as economists recently told CNN.

How could the shutdown impact you? 

Black workers are overrepresented in the federal government, which has long hired us at rates that eclipse private sector rates.

Black Americans make up 13.2% of the total U.S. population but hold 18.2% of federal government jobs.

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, nearly every president has issued executive orders or enacted laws that have together expanded federal worker and contractor protections against discrimination and created affirmative action programs to boost diversity in the federal workforce and confront the country’s legacy of anti-Black racism.

Because of these efforts, Black Americans have seen “public service employment [open] up economic opportunities for good, well-paid jobs,” wrote Farah Z. Ahmad, a former senior policy analyst at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, in a 2013 report. “The competitive pay scales of government employment have lifted generations of Black people into the middle class.”

If the government shutters, Black employees will struggle more than their white peers to replace their missing income.

“In my experience, there are far fewer African Americans in the higher grades,” Cheryl Monroe, who launched her federal employment career at the Internal Revenue Service in 1987, told The Associated Press in 2019.

“White people have the more lucrative jobs in the government,” she added. “They are able to save, able to put money away for six months or a year’s worth of salary. It’s harder for Black people. We’re always starting at the bottom.”

On average, white households have $8,100 in liquid assets, while Black households have $1,500, according to 2019 data. Further, fewer Black households say that they can get money from family or friends during a crisis.

Has this happened before?

The U.S. is barreling toward its 22nd government shutdown in 50 years. Though the country has seen these events before, the threat of them has become more regular over the past decade.

This greater frequency stems in part from the fact that lawmakers — especially Republican lawmakers — have embraced shutdowns as a tool for political obstruction and campaigning, as Vox’s Li Zhou explained in 2021.

Before 2013, she said, a shutdown hadn’t occurred in more than 10 years. But following the rise of the Tea Party movement during former President Barack Obama’s first term, Republican legislators used the tactic to rail against the Affordable Care Act.

“In the process, GOP lawmakers successfully made their opposition to the law clear, though they eventually caved and funding for the ACA passed. That opposition became an important part of the party’s midterm messaging in 2014, however, a year in which they successfully regained control of the Senate and kept the House,” she wrote.

Neal told Capital B that he wonders how ballooning unpredictability might affect Black workers, who’ve long seen federal employment as something of a haven from the hiring discrimination that can plague the private sector.

It used to be that a federal government job was a safe job, he explained. People gave up the really high levels of income that they could get in the private sector in exchange for the stability and better quality of life that federal employment offered.

“But if you’re starting to see greater volatility — one moment you’re working, the next you’re furloughed and not sure when your next paycheck is coming — that might make people pause,” Neal said. “They might ask if a federal government job is actually going to give them the lifestyle they’re looking for.”

Brandon Tensley is Capital B's national politics reporter.