Ross: 'I don't quite understand' why federal workers need food banks during shutdown

Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossHouse chairman threatens to find Justice official in contempt of Congress DOJ rejects Oversight subpoena unless agency lawyer is permitted to attend Third judge blocks citizenship question from 2020 census MORE said Thursday that he was confused why thousands of federal workers, who've already missed one paycheck, are relying on food banks during the partial government shutdown.

Ross said on CNBC's "Squawk Box" that he didn't understand why some of the roughly 800,000 unpaid federal workers have flocked to food banks for meals instead of taking out loans against back pay guaranteed by a bill President TrumpDonald John TrumpImpeachment? Not so fast without missing element of criminal intent Feds say marijuana ties could prevent immigrants from getting US citizenship Trump approval drops to 2019 low after Mueller report's release: poll MORE signed last week.

"I know they are and I don’t really quite understand why," said Ross, who's reportedly worth roughly $700 million.

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"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 of financial institutions doing that."

Hundreds of banks and credit unions have offered low- or no-interest loans against back pay to federal workers who will not be paid until the shutdown ends. But thousands of those employees are still struggling to cover basic expenses, and furloughed federal contractors may not receive backpay at all.

The shutdown, now in its 34th day, could take a steep toll on the U.S. economy. The president's top economist said Wednesday that the shutdown could wipe out all of the country's first quarter gross domestic product growth if it lasts through March. 

Ross downplayed the overall impact the shutdown could have on the economy, arguing that the numbers of federal employees affected make up a small portion of U.S. workforce.

"While I feel sorry for the individuals that have hardship cases," Ross said, "you’re talking about a third of a percent on our GDP. So it’s not like it’s a gigantic number overall."

Ross' comments spurred a firestorm of backlash from Democratic lawmakers and Trump administration critics, who panned the wealthy commerce secretary as out of touch. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerHillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars Dem legal analyst says media 'overplayed' hand in Mueller coverage Former FBI official praises Barr for 'professional' press conference MORE (D-N.Y.) called Ross' remarks "the 21st century equivalent of 'let them eat cake.'"

"They can’t just call their stockbroker and ask them to sell some of their shares. They need that paycheck," Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor.

House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiImpeachment? Not so fast without missing element of criminal intent 20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Hillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars MORE (D-Calif.) also blasted Ross in similar terms during a Thursday afternoon press conference.

“Is this the ‘Let them eat cake,’ kind of attitude? Or ‘Call your father for money?’ Or ’This is character-building for you; it’s all going to end up very well — just as long as you don’t get your paychecks?’” Pelosi asked mockingly, taking an apparent shot at financial aid President Trump received from his father. 

A significant part of the federal workforce lives paycheck to paycheck, and roughly 40 percent of Americans do not have sufficient savings to cover a surprise expense of $400, according to a 2018 report from the Federal Reserve.

Ross sought to tamp down the outrage in an interview with Bloomberg TV on Thursday, saying that his comments were only meant to offer guidance to workers facing a "liquidity crisis."

"We're aware, painfully aware, that there are hardships inflicted on the individual workers," Ross added. "All I was trying to do is make sure they’re aware there are possible other things that could help somewhat mitigate their problems."

Updated at 4:30 p.m. Brett Samuels contributed.