'It is fire that they're playing with': Americans' fears grow as debt ceiling deadline nears

 Across America, families are watching with trepidation as negotiators in Washington work behind closed doors to try to strike a deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling and cut federal spending.

Congressional Republicans are insisting that budget cuts should be part of an agreement to raise the nation’s borrowing limit and are pushing for tougher work requirements for federal benefits such as food stamps.

For the millions of Americans who rely on government assistance to put food on the table or pay their bills, the decisions made in those debt-ceiling talks could have real-life consequences.

“At the end of the day, the vulnerable folks are always the ones that pay the cost,” said Jennifer Wells of Community Change, a social justice organization that advocates on behalf of low-income people.

Here’s what Americans say they’d like to see happen – and fear most –in the debt-ceiling debate.

More:What happens if the US defaults? What you need to know as the debt ceiling deadline nears.

'It is fire that they're playing with. The fire will burn my child.'

Hazel Willow of Maine, with her 4-year-old son, receives cash benefits from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a welfare program. She worries the program will be cut as part of the debt-ceiling discussions in Washington.

The life Hazel Willow is living is not the one she’d imagined for herself or her son.

A single mother and survivor of gender-based violence, her life started out with such promise. She went to college in Canada, taught English overseas, worked in childcare on a military installation in Kansas and eventually landed a $75,000-a-year sales job with a tech company in Boston.

But all of that unraveled two years ago when she ended up in a shelter. Since then, she has been unable to find steady housing for herself or her 4-year-old. The trauma she carries from her abusive relationship makes it impossible for her to hold down a job.

“I lived my worst nightmare,” she said.

Willow, who lives in Maine, relies on the $497 she gets a month through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a government welfare program, to make ends meet. Republicans in Congress are demanding that tighter work requirements be enacted for Americans to continue qualifying for such cash benefits. President Joe Biden has suggested he’s open to such restrictions.

Willow, 36, sees those kinds of requirements as dehumanizing and dangerous because they could strip many Americans of services they need to survive. Without the money she gets from TANF, she would be unable to feed her son, she said.

“I understand things are happening at a higher level,” Willow said of the political debate in Washington, “but they have real-world implications.”

“It is fire that they’re playing with, and that is not fire that will burn them,” she said. “The fire will burn my child.”

More:Debt ceiling negotiations between White House, Republicans hit a snag heading into weekend

'It just doesn't make sense what they're doing to the American people'

Queen Jackson of Oakland, California, has a debilitating illness that limits her ability to walk. She relies on Social Security and Medicare and worries those programs are in jeopardy because of the debt-ceiling negotiations in Washington.

Queen Jackson was driving down busy Highway 4 in Northern California when she noticed something was wrong.  She couldn’t take her foot off the gas pedal. It wouldn’t move.

A doctor diagnosed the problem. She had developed Fibromyalgia, a debilitating illness that causes acute muscular pain and severely limits mobility. Be prepared to spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair, he warned.

Jackson, who lives in Oakland, proved the doctor wrong. Twenty years after that life-changing diagnosis, she’s still able to walk, but only with extreme difficulty and the help of a walker. Her joints and nerves ache constantly. The pain in her knees and back is excruciating.

“There are times when I don’t do anything. Because I can’t,” she said.

Driving is now out of the question. So is working. A banker, she had to go on disability after her diagnosis. Her only income is her monthly Social Security check ($1,938). She relies on Medicare to pay her medical bills.

Jackson, 66, fears what will happen to people like her if the federal government doesn’t raise the debt ceiling and can’t pay its bills. If her Social Security check doesn’t arrive on time, she won’t be able to buy food and pay her rent or other expenses.

“It just doesn’t make sense what they’re trying to do to the American public,” she said.

More:'Hostage-taking cannot be rewarded': Liberals worry Biden is caving in debt ceiling talks

'Live with somebody like me for a month'

Barbara A. Mazer of Carmel, New York, who has multiple illnesses, lives off her Social Security benefits and two small pensions. She worries what will happen to her Social Security check if negotiators fail to reach a debt-ceiling deal and the government can't pay its bills.

When Barbara A. Mazer hears politicians insist that Americans should work to qualify for food assistance or other welfare benefits, she thinks of a man she used to know.

His family was so poor, she recalled, that it bought bacon from a deli by the slice.

“That just crushed me,” said Mazer, who thinks politicians don’t have a clue how many Americans live.

Mazer, of Carmel, New York, knows what it’s like to live from paycheck to paycheck. A retired drug and alcohol counselor, the 70-year-old suffers from multiple health problems. She has diabetes and congestive heart failure. Her lungs are damaged from 40 years of cigarette smoking. Severe neuropathy in both legs forces her to walk with a cane.

Mazer lives off her monthly Social Security benefits and two small pensions. It’s not enough. She got rid of her car because she couldn’t afford to get it repaired or inspected. At times, she has had to choose between paying for her medicine or the mortgage on her condo. “The medication wins,” she said.

Political leaders squabbling in Washington “are holding us hostage,” she said. Her message to those pushing to cut social service programs before they’ll agree to raise the debt ceiling: “Live with somebody like me for a month – not just visit me for three hours and hear my tale of woe.”

“The Republicans and the Democrats are playing a game of chicken,” she said. “I’m praying that neither side is stupid enough to let this go down to the wire and have the debt ceiling flush the economy.”

More:Biden cancels trip to Australia over debt ceiling talks, will travel to Japan

'Do not put the economy and the American people in jeopardy'

Phil Herring, standing next to his wife, Kim, is a small business owner in Bainbridge Island, Washington, who sells Koi fish. He is concerned that a government default would hit his business "fast and hard."

In the bay of Phil Herring’s garage, koi fish swim around in 250-gallon tanks.

The 70-year-old is the owner of Discount Koi, a small business based in Bainbridge Island, Washington, that ships hundreds of koi throughout the country each week. Their time with Herring is often short— he buys the fish wholesale through farms and sells them in small assortments, striving to keep the fish in his tanks for less than a week.  

“I consider my facility to be the equivalent of a youth hostel for koi,” he said. “I want to get them into ponds where they belong.”  

If the government were to default on its debt, those efforts would become even more challenging. Herring said the effects would hit his business “fast and hard.”  

Herring expressed concerns that the negative economic effects of a default – instability in interest rates, increases in credit card rates and difficulty borrowing money – would cause his customers to cancel orders to instead spend their money on necessary services like bills or rent.  

“I think my business would be one of the first to tank if we were hit by a broad and deep recession, and I think that’s what a default would cause,” he said.  

Herring called the concept of a debt ceiling “ridiculous” and thinks it should be removed.   

“If the Republicans want to tank the economy, then it’s on them I guess,” Herring said, adding that if he could send a message to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, he’d say: “Negotiate on the budget in good faith and do not put the economy and the American people in jeopardy for a small fraction of your caucus.”

“The best thing that could happen is that we default,” he said. “And there is no solution and the consequences of our reckless behavior for the last four years come back and haunt us.”

Taylor, who identifies as a centrist, used to vote against incumbents every year until 2016 before he started voting mainly for Republican candidates. He hopes the debt ceiling negotiations are an eye opener ahead of the 2024 elections.

“So the American people can see that the people that they’re electing are career politicians that are only in it to keep their jobs,” he said. "There’s no path forward with the leaders that are there."

'Act like adults'

Chris Kelly with his son, Thomas, at Boy Scout Camp in the summer of 2022. Kelly worries a government default could halt the disability payments his son receives.

Christopher Kelly adopted his two sons from an orphanage in western Ukraine 15 years ago. The youngest, Thomas, is now 18. From years of neglect, Thomas has intellectual disabilities that make him eligible to receive disability payments from Social Security.   

Kelly calls him a “miracle." Thomas is about to begin a college program in Iowa that will teach him to be more independent. He currently works as Cuppy, the Dunkin’ Donuts mascot for the Hartford Yard Goats, a Minor League Baseball team near his hometown of Farmington, Connecticut. 

“As one teacher put it, he’s the mayor of everywhere,” the 59-year-old father said.  

Kelly, who works as a property claims insurance adjuster, said his family is fortunate that impacts from a government default on disability payments would not be burdensome to his family today. But if his son were older, Kelly said he would have significant concerns.  

“Ten, 15 years from now when we’re not working, and hopefully he (Thomas) would be in his own place, yes, this would be very hard for us,” Kelly said.

When it comes to debt ceiling negotiations, Kelly said he’d like to see both parties “act like adults." He hopes to retire in the next five years at 65 and also is concerned that a government default would impact the money he has been faithfully putting into a 401(k) throughout his career. 

“I would hate to see that evaporate,” he said.

Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS. Rachel Looker covers Congress. Follow her @_RachelLooker

More:Last-minute deal on debt ceiling could still spark recession even if US avoids default

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