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

Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossTrump administration announces deal to avert tariffs on Mexican tomatoes Huawei grappling with 'live or die moment,' founder says Ex-counterintelligence official warns Trump administration not to be shortsighted on Huawei 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 TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? 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 SchumerJewish Democratic congresswoman and veteran blasts Trump's 'disloyalty' comments Schumer says Trump encouraging anti-Semites Saagar Enjeti: Biden's latest blunder; Krystal Ball: Did Schumer blow our chance to beat McConnell? 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 PelosiMoulton drops out of presidential race after struggling to gain traction Conservatives push Trump tariff relief over payroll tax cuts Democrats press FBI, DHS on response to white supremacist violence 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.