At the US Coast Guard Base in Boston, the partial government shutdown has become more than a long list of impersonal numbers recited in the news media of the furloughed and unpaid, and those in danger of losing benefits.
It now is a case, for some members of the world’s most powerful military, of searching for ways to feed their families.
On Wednesday, a food pantry stocked by civilians will open on the base to provide free food to Coast Guard members — many with young children — who live paycheck to paycheck and fear they will soon go without pay as the shutdown drags on.
“It’s horrible,” said Don Cox, president of the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation, which will operate the pantry. “We’re playing with people’s lives, and we’re screwing around with their paycheck. What the heck’s wrong with the country?”
This financial strain is shared across a wide swath of the federal government, which has ordered 420,000 employees to work without pay and furloughed 380,000 others in a shutdown that reached 18 days on Tuesday.
Secret Service agents, air traffic controllers, and National Park staff also are among the affected, as are 770,000 people in Massachusetts who rely on food stamps, which are not fully funded past January.
Many tenants in federally subsidized housing face eviction if the shutdown continues indefinitely. Some businesses are unable to communicate with the federal government, and the IRS is providing little guidance to taxpayers and accountants about how to interpret the tax changes enacted this year. The IRS, however, has said that refunds will be processed if the shutdown continues.
“I’m trying to encourage my clients to get their materials and get started on the process earlier rather than later,” said Larry Carlton, a certified public accountant in Harwich. “In a lot of cases, we don’t know how the new tax law is going to affect them.”
The Coast Guard, which is funded through the largely shuttered Department of Homeland Security, is the only branch of the military to have its pay suspended during the shutdown. On Cape Cod, 52,000 pounds of food already has been distributed to military members, Cox said.
Food has been donated by the Greater Boston Food Bank, Ocean State Job Lot, Shaw’s Supermarkets, and others, Cox said. The foundation also operates a day-care center on the Cape that is providing clothing, food, diapers, and even pacifiers and rattles, he said.
But a bad situation will become worse if Coast Guard members do not receive their next scheduled paycheck on Jan. 15.
“They’re overextended from Christmas. They’re like everyone else,” Cox said. “If they don’t get paid on the 15th, what are they going to do for money?”
Questions also are swirling around the business world.
James Rooney, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said any serious disruptions at busy Logan Airport, where traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration agents are working without pay, could harm the area’s economy.
“Business people, generally speaking, do not like uncertainty,” Rooney said. “The government shutdown, issues of international trade, the disruption in the stock market, the threats to close the border with Mexico — all of these create a set of dynamics in which it’s difficult for the business community, particularly those in the international trade marketplace, to make plans with any level of certainty.”
Some 11,000 companies in Massachusetts and 310,000 workers compete in the global market, Rooney said.
Security lines are growing at airports around the country as more and more TSA agents call in sick. So far, Logan has not been affected, according to Jennifer Mehigan, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates the airport.
“We are not seeing any staffing issues,” Mehigan said.
Among air traffic controllers there, six new arrivals and a support staffer have been furloughed, according to union officials.
The furloughed employees either arrived as new hires or were transferred and have not been trained to the point of being certified, said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
A rally for affected federal employees is planned for 11:45 a.m. Friday across from Post Office Square in Boston, according to Local 3428 of the American Federation of Government Employees.
The shutdown also has frozen much activity in US immigration courts.
“The backlog was incredibly bad, and it will just get worse,” said Jeannie Kain, a Boston immigration lawyer and former chair of the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It’s complete uncertainty how to advise clients, how to prepare for their hearings.”
What is certain is that relief organizations such as the Greater Boston Food Bank will need to ramp up their efforts if the shutdown continues much longer.
“We do not know what is going to happen post-Feb. 1,” when full funding will lapse for food-stamp benefits, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, said Catherine Drennan, spokeswoman for the food bank.
Another concern is that surplus food distributed by the federal government — a program in which the food bank participates — could be affected, Drennan said.
“Hunger is a nonpartisan issue, and no one in our country should ever go hungry,” Drennan said. “In anticipation of increased need, we’ll redouble our efforts to address that need. Right now, we’re just taking it day by day.”
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