Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Thursday that he doesn’t see why furloughed federal workers are having to go to food banks and are having trouble taking care of their families when they could just take out a loan.
“When you think about, these are basically government guaranteed loans because the government has committed these folks will get their back pay once this whole thing gets settled down,” Ross said during an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”
“So, there really is not a good excuse why there really should be a liquidity crisis,” he said. Ross, who Forbes estimates is worth about $700 million, conceded that the workers “might have to pay a little bit of interest, but the idea that its paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea.”
His remarks come a day before the impacted federal workers will miss another paycheck due to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
In response to Ross’ remarks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wondered Thursday, “Is this the ‘let them eat cake’ kind of attitude?” in a reference to French Queen Marie Antoinette’s infamous quote reflecting her indifference to starving peasants. She also equated it to telling a furloughed worker to “call your father for money.”
Workers calling in sick ‘kind of disappointing’
“It’s kind of disappointing that the air traffic controllers are calling in sick in pretty large numbers,” Ross said, because “they are eventually going to be paid.”
But he called it “hyperbole” to say that the government shutdown is a threat to the overall economy, or the American brand internationally.
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‘Put it in perspective’
“We’ve had shutdowns before, albeit for not such a long period as we’ve been thus far,” he said.
“Put it in perspective. You’re talking about 800,000 workers,” Ross explained. “While I feel sorry for the individuals that have hardship cases,” Ross said even if all those workers were never paid again, “you’re talking about a third of a percent on our GDP, so it’s not like its a gigantic number overall.”
‘I don’t really quite understand why’ they’re going to food banks
Host Andrew Sorkin told Ross that some federal workers “are having to go to homeless shelters to get food.”
“Well, I know they are and I don’t really quite understand why, because as I mentioned before, the obligations that they would undertake, say of borrowing from a bank or a credit union, are, in effect, federally guaranteed,” he replied.
Many loans are available
Ross is correct that a number of loans are available for federal workers whose pay has been impacted by the shutdown.
- The Congressional Credit Union is offering lines of credit to federal workers not receiving pay that do not have any interest for 60 days and then at a 4 percent rate for three years.
- Navy Federal Credit Union is offering zero percent interest loans up to $6,000 for 60 days or until the shutdown ends, whichever comes first. The Pentagon Federal Credit Union offers a similar loan to impacted federal workers who already have accounts there.
- USAA Federal Savings Bank has special loans for members of the Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Corp. who are not getting paychecks during the shutdown.
The problem with loans
The problem with Ross’ suggestion is that those workers hit hardest by the shutdown are the people who are least likely to be eligible for a loan, said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate.
And there are pitfalls for those who are eligible he said.
“The risk is that they turn to products with the highest rates of interest which adds to their costs and reduces the ability to repay,” Hamrick said. And even the low-interest loans being offered to workers hit by the shutdown could end up hurting the borrowers’ credit ratings in the long term.
“For borrowers whose lenders have temporarily forgiven payments in the very short-term, this is merely delaying the inevitable,” Hamrick said. “There’s typically no free lunch when it comes to borrowing.”