WASHINGTON — No one would mistake Mantua, a leafy section of Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County where houses sell in the $700,000 range, for a factory town, but where Jenny Foo lives, almost everyone’s paycheck comes from the same place.
Foo, who spent her career at the State Department, lives across from someone who worked at the Food and Drug Administration and another who had a career with the U.S. Geological Survey and just up from a couple of military families. Around the corner, there’s a National Park Service historian, a Pentagon analyst and a Foreign Service diplomat.
In Mantua — 14 miles west of Washington’s Federal Triangle area, which has offices of several government agencies — the sledgehammer of budget cuts that hit Friday are a threat to financial stability, an unnecessary reminder of a political system that seems unable to solve problems and, perhaps worst of all, a symbol of how dramatically perceptions of government work have shifted.
For most of their lives, federal workers in Mantua say, having “United States Treasury" atop their paycheck meant security, pride and a sense of mission. Things change: Now it means having to defend yourself against arguments, from strangers and even from your own relatives, that you’re an overpaid and underworked leech.
And in these days of political paralysis, it means that paycheck suddenly isn’t so secure.
“I can’t even be sure that my pension check will get here," said Foo, who recently retired after 36 years at State, working on passports, issuing travel warnings, handling sensitive cases of Americans in trouble abroad. “People at OPM (the Office of Personnel Management) have to cut the checks, and if they’re on furlough, maybe the checks don’t come through. It’s going to affect everybody. ... No pension, no spending. It all trickles down."
As worried as many federal workers are about what a furlough might do to their monthly budgets, some are equally bothered by the growing sense that the careers they chose may now seem unattractive, even unworthy. For the college-educated of Mantua, the federal government was a place to put their smarts to work in service of country. But many of their children have decided that government work isn’t worth the aggravation. Foo’s son scrapped public service after a summer internship in the government; he works for Dell now. Her daughter is a teacher overseas.
“I don’t know if people will want to go into the government the way it’s thought of now," Foo said. “For us in the ’70s, it was about security and availability. It wasn’t the highest paid of jobs, but the pay was guaranteed and you couldn’t get laid off."
“It’s an extremely threatening and highly insulting condition to find myself in," said a National Defense University professor who lives in Mantua and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his high-level security clearance. “It’s one thing to hear the constant negative drumbeat directed at federal workers from people outside Washington. It’s another thing to have the threat of denial of livelihood."
In his family, after four generations of military service, there was little question that he would go into public work. And for three decades, he’s loved his job teaching the nation’s future top brass, despite the expectation that he work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day. He gets the frustration that people beyond the District of Columbia region feel with politicians. But on a recent visit to Missouri, he got fed up with ritual denunciations of federal workers, and he put a group of complaining citizens through a tough line of questioning: “You don’t want the highways? You’re against food inspections? You farmers don’t need the help from the Agriculture Department? You want to get rid of the people who protect you from terrorists?"
That felt pretty good, but he’s under no illusion that he changed minds. Federal workers say they share the rest of the country’s frustration with declining standards of living, dim prospects for the next generation and political division. But they don’t see what good could come of putting federal workers on furlough when the economy’s in such a fragile state.
The professor has already cut back in anticipation of the forthcoming budget slashing: He told a carpenter who was going to build bookshelves in the living room that the $5,000 job will have to be put off, and he told his doggie day-care provider that he’ll have to go without that service when the furloughs kick in.
Even those workers who don’t expect to take a direct hit are feeling the pain of the automatic cuts that Congress set up in a failed effort to get themselves to address the nation’s budget woes.
“My understanding is that there’s no impact on my employment this year," said Raymond Won, an engineering manager at the Energy Department’s Office of Science, the nation’s largest supporter of the basic research in physical sciences that can result in innovations in the private sector. “But there’s immediate impact on the work I do. What sequestration is doing is preventing the start on new-generation equipment that will create the next wave of American jobs."
Won, a federal worker for 31 years, is resentful of the notion, now commonplace on talk radio and websites devoted to bashing the government, that federal workers carry a lighter load than their for-profit counterparts.
“My batting average" is a thousand, he said. “I take great pride in that, and I am relentless in delivering on time and below cost estimates. Of course, there are things the government could probably do without. There’s always waste and fraud. But there are parts of the government that conduct work with extreme excellence. And be careful how much you bash federal workers, because if you don’t attract good talent, then don’t be surprised if government becomes much worse than it is today."
The future of federal work
Older workers worry about what comes after the bashing.
Garret Albert, a retired government engineer whose wife still works at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, understands that pensions, once routine, have become a wild luxury in the private sector, and that makes many Americans frustrated.
“I realize that since the government doesn’t produce money-making things, it’s easier to disparage the work," he said. “But it seems so shortsighted to allow a very small minority of vociferous people to sway politicians into taking such discouraging actions."
Working for Uncle Sam was never meant to be a path to prosperity, and in Mantua, the ranches and split-levels, good-size houses on large lots, make it hard to recall that this kind of 1960s enclave development stretched the idea of what a middle-class salary could buy. Today, the workers’ children couldn’t possibly afford to live here, especially those who joined the military or civil service. The younger generation is more likely to be at the wrong end of a tougher, longer commute.
Such is the price of the affluence that pumped Fairfax real estate prices into the stratosphere over the past quarter-century.
But in Mantua, in what is rapidly becoming a NORC (a naturally occurring retirement community), the older federal workers and recent retirees aren’t content to think about how much value their properties have gained through the years. Rather, they look back on their years of service and wonder if this is the end, a pivot away from the idea that working for your country is something honorable and stable.
Jenny Foo spent her last years at State working on tough cases, such as bringing home the remains of American contractors who had been taken hostage in Iraq. The work involved late nights and extra days, but it was work that she thought her fellow Americans would want her to be doing. “It was never eight hours’ work," she said.