What Would a Government Shutdown Mean to Young Voters?

US Capitol Building in Washington DC
''I am hopeful that young adults' frustration will fuel them not only to vote but to run for office and serve – putting them in positions of power to effect the change they seek,'' Elizabeth C. Matto says.
MH Anderson Photography

With a federal government shutdown appearing inevitable, we talked to Elizabeth C. Matto, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics who previously led the Center for Youth Political Participation, about how the dispute can shape young voters' view of government and their connection to the political process.

What would a government shutdown mean to the average taxpayer and their families and who would be most affected?

In short, a shutdown of the government means that Congress has not successfully passed the appropriations legislation necessary to fund the executive agencies that compose the federal government. The most direct impact will be felt by the millions of federal workers and military service members reliant on a paycheck. Although pay is restored retroactively once appropriations bills are passed, the length of the possible shutdown is uncertain and may be protracted compounding the impact. There are also significant indirect effects to millions across the country when the government does not fund its agencies. In a government shutdown, federal workers considered "non-essential" are told not to report to work, so the services they provide are not available to the public (ranging from processing passports applications to visiting national parks). Additionally, such a shutdown can cause uncertainty in the markets and the economy as a whole, which is broadly felt by average taxpayers.

How does this matter to young voters?

Young adults' connection to the government shutdown is not that different from older adults' experience. If they are federal employees or have family members who are employees, they will feel the pinch directly of not working or collecting a paycheck. The situation also promises to have serious implications for those seeking federal aid for college or those required to repay student loan debts. A government shutdown could affect the processing of FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) applications and add to the uncertainty of funding one's college education. For those holding a federal student loan who have benefited from the pause in repayment requirement, expectations for loan repayment likely will resume on October 1. Those funds for repayment may be more difficult to come by during the shutdown.

Does this contribute to voter apathy, or will it galvanize voters and especially young voters to work for change?

Voting behavior is a function of numerous factors ranging from electoral law in one's state to the competitiveness of a campaign. Young adults today are demonstrating though that they are paying attention to politics and inclined to participate in the political process. There's also a growing awareness among young voters of how their lives are impacted by the decisions made by those representing them in office. Especially if this is an extended shutdown, the actions or inactions of office holders might spur voting in the next election – especially for those already poised to do so.

Is this the new normal and how does this shape young voters view of government?

The frequency of shutdowns in recent years due to Congress's inability to pass the necessary appropriations bill (or the continuing resolutions that provide short-term spending allowing government to function) certainly seems to be increasing. Theoretically, we look to government and the work of agencies to provide stability or a sense of regularity. We also expect, at least in theory, that the competition of interests in these representative bodies will result in some sort of compromise. Given the likelihood of this shutdown and the sense that shutdowns are becoming more frequent, it's understandable that young adults would question the nature of governance today. Millennials and Generation Z are age cohorts that are interested in addressing public problems and are frustrated when institutions don't address these problems effectively. I am hopeful that young adults' frustration will fuel them not only to vote but to run for office and serve – putting them in positions of power to effect the change they seek.