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Self-Proclaimed Billionaire Wilbur Ross Doesn’t ‘Understand Why’ Unpaid Federal Workers Are Going to Food Banks

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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had some interesting things to say about federal employees impacted by the partial government shutdown. Sylvain Gaboury—Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

The day before 800,000 federal workers brace not getting a second straight paycheck due to the government shutdown, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross expressed confusion on Thursday about why some are relying on food banks to feed their families.

“I know they are [going to homeless shelters] and I don’t really quite understand why,” said Ross on CNBC’s Squawk Box. He also said he felt there was “no real reason why they shouldn’t be able to get a loan against it” since “the obligations that they would undertake – say borrowing from a bank or credit union – are in effect federally guaranteed.”

Ross’ comments come as furloughed workers, including some members of the FBI who have had to work without pay as “essential workers”, have turned to established food banks, or even created their own food banks to feed fellow workers and their families.

Ross’ response was quickly criticized as tone deaf, particularly given the secretary’s extreme wealth. Although Ross’ financial-disclosure forms he submitted when he was nominated to be a cabinet member stated that he had $700 million in assets, the Secretary actually called Forbes magazine in 2017 to argue that his net worth was $3.7 billion, rather than the $2.9 billion the magazine printed in the Forbes400.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted Thursday that it was “unreal” that the “billionaire” secretary was unable to comprehend why workers “don’t just take out loans *to feed their families.*”

House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi asked, “If this is the ‘let them eat cake’ kind of attitude, or ‘call your father for money?'”

Furthermore, unpaid federal workers have already been taking loans to pay for basic needs. And although various banks, credit unions, and even PayPal have offered special payment programs for furloughed workers, Roll Call writes that the loans would be sufficient into the second month of the shutdown.

Ross also dismissed the impact that paying interest would have on financially gutted federal employees saying, “There really is not a good excuse why there should be a liquidity crisis. Now true, the people might have to pay a little bit of interest but the idea that it’s paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea.”

He also received backlash for minimizing the 800,000 unpaid workers as a major problem, telling CNBC, “you’re talking about a third of a percent on our GDP. so it’s not like it’s a gigantic number overall.”

Ross isn’t the first member of the Trump Administration to dismiss the impact the shutdown has had on American workers. Last week, White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett told PBS News Hour that the unpaid employees were “better off” since they didn’t “have to use their vacation days” if they had already planned trips between Christmas and New Year’s.