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Trump's commerce secretary doesn't get why federal workers need food banks

Furloughed workers living paycheck to paycheck

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday said he doesn't understand why federal employees would need assistance from food banks, when they should be able to secure loans to ride out the shutdown.

Ross, whose net worth is in the hundreds of millions, told business network CNBC Thursday he knows federal workers are visiting shelters to find free food, but doesn't quite understand why that's necessary. Roughly 800,000 federal employees have gone without a paycheck for more than a month now, as the longest shutdown on record continues. 

In Washington, D.C., and around the country, communities have opened up food banks to federal workers who aren't currently receiving a paycheck. Ross pointed out that workers will eventually receive their paychecks, and so financial institutions should be lending to them temporarily. 

"Well, I know they are and I don't really quite understand why," Ross told CNBC, on federal workers at food banks. "Because, as I mentioned before, the obligations that they would undertake, say borrowing from a bank or a credit union are in effect federally guaranteed. So the 30 days of pay that some people will be out, there's no real reason why they shouldn't be able to get a loan against it and we've seen a number of ads from financial institutions doing that."

Ross' comments sparked immediate backlash. 

"Wilbur Ross is a billionaire," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted (although Forbes removed him from its billionaires list in 2017). "And this is billionaire Wilbur Ross saying he doesn't understand why federal workers not getting paid during the #TrumpShutdown don't just take out loans *to feed their families* Unreal."

Ross' remarks come as the president himself has struggled to empathize with federal workers going without pay. The president has called them "patriots" and says most of them understand his border wall and border security are worth it, but some federal workers going without pay for now don't see it that way. 

"It must be nice to be a billionaire ... that he doesn't have to worry about a paycheck," one Coast Guard aviator in North Carolina told CBS News earlier this month. 

Larry Kudlow, the president's top economic adviser, said nobody wants federal workers to experience the pain they currently are.

"I fret about the hardship. OK?" Kudlow told reporters Thursday afternoon. "That's just me. I fret about the hardship. And my great hope is that we can reach an agreement ASAP so that those furloughed workers and others will come back look they're going to get paid. They're going to get paid. ... Am I out of touch? I don't think I'm out of touch. I mean I've met with my individual staff members, and God bless em, they're working for free, they're volunteering, but they do it because they believe government service is honorable and they believe in president Trump and they're working as hard as ever."