The Government Shutdown Hit Those Who Need Help

credit Daniel Baxter
credit Daniel Baxter

Walk around the Hudson Valley and it seems as though the government shutdown is little more than a distant dream. People are enjoying the last of the spectacular fall foliage and anticipating a season of skiing, sledding, and cocoa by the fire. Tourists and natives alike stroll through quaint villages enjoying the brisk air, oblivious to the narrowly averted financial crisis. With work resuming at government agencies, it’s easy to wonder if anyone was affected by the shutdown. Unless you speak with the Others, those without cozy fires blazing in their hearths or heading off to winter resorts or tropical hideaways.

Although all families dependent on US government salaries had to find a way to cope this past fall, single parent families suffered substantially.

According to statistics from the US Census, single women head approximately one-fourth of all households with children in our district; their children are dependent on the financial support of the absent parent. When the absent parent is a furloughed government worker, the effects can be emotionally, as well as financially, crushing.

Single parents are reluctant to go on the record. Fear of an ex-spouse seeking retribution through physical, emotional, and financial harm causes women to seek the shadows hoping to avoid conflict in already overburdened lives. Jane Smith (name changed to protect her identity) is one such woman. This single mother of four was married for almost 20 years to a government worker. Because child support was difficult to collect, Jane chose to have her ex’s wages garnished. While the government was shut down, Jane’s checks ceased. Back pay was granted to furloughed workers; however, garnished child support is a predetermined withdrawal and did not qualify for restitution.

Back child support goes into an arrears “bucket,” as Jane calls it. To claim those funds, Jane is at the mercy of her ex, who is supposed to pay voluntarily, or of the courts, which are supposed to help if one parent refuses. When a non-paying parent hits a particular amount in arrears, actions can be taken to deny passport applications, place liens on property, and lower credit ratings. In drastic cases, a driver’s license may be revoked.

But Jane has been through the system enough to know this is not always the case. Vacations are still taken; possessions are hidden in others’ names; and credit rating matters less when you have a high-paying job. Perhaps the greatest obstacle confronting Jane is the fear many custodial parents have of the court system. Returning to court means missing work while still paying for daycare and having a tête-à-tête with her ex’s attorney since she cannot afford one.

“I fear going back,” Jane says of the court system. The last time she went to court seeking back support, the judge granted her the arrears but also lowered her ex’s support payments and raised the amount she would have to pay in add-ons. The end result of Jane’s efforts was a loss of hundreds of dollars a month in support and an increase in expenses.

Congressional legislation during the government shutdown allowed Jane’s ex-husband and others to receive late paychecks, but for some of the region’s struggling children, that delayed paycheck will now become their absent parent’s holiday bonus.

Single parent families are often low income, especially those headed by single women, and these are the families that Clarice Murphy from Dutchess County Toys for Tots reaches out to. Clarice Murphy herself also knows the struggles of a single parent.

On November 18, 2002, Ms. Murphy’s daughter Juanita was murdered. Although Ms. Murphy underwent three major back surgeries and was unable to walk for a full year, she took in her daughter’s three children. When she was able to walk again, she “made God a promise to walk for the betterment of mankind.”

Murphy has kept her promise. For the past 28 years she has worked for Toys for Tots and now serves as its Dutchess County coordinator. Speaking about the effects of the government shutdown, Murphy added that well over half the children served by her program come from single parent families but that families of all types are seeing a growing need.

Toys for Tots relies heavily on the visibility of the US Marines. During the government shutdown, Marines were forbidden from participating and standing in uniform. Ms. Murphy stated, “Those Dress Blues bring in funds. We could not do anything. All operations stopped.”

For local Toys for Tots campaigns, the government shutdown meant a decrease in the number of collection boxes distributed, a delay in shopping completed, and a decline in donations received. Money collected this year is often applied to purchases for the following year so the affects and timing of the government shutdown could have lasting consequences.

Ms. Murphy spoke passionately about how the Marines and her staff are working to combat the setback and about the growing need in the Hudson Valley saying, “The stories get worse and worse.” She told of one woman who, like Jane, is a single mother of four small children. This woman just received her second pacemaker and is physically unable to work. Ms. Murphy drew the picture of what life must be like for this family. Finding time to parent and money to feed the children is an overwhelming obstacle. Purchasing toys is a physical and financial impossibility.

One man hoping to negate some of those losses is Jim Dunaway, employee at Alterniverse, a comic store located on Route 44 in Salt Point. Alterniverse has hosted a Toys for Tots party for the last four years. This year, Dunaway looks forward to a December 7 party bigger than previous years with incentives given to those bringing a new unwrapped toy. Last year the store collected over $5000 worth of toys. “We are going to top that this year,” Dunaway confidently states.

People like Jane Smith, Clarice Murphy, and others affected by the government shutdown certainly hope so!

For a complete list of Toys for Tots drop off locations, go to or call 845-832-9911.