Editorial: Decline And Fall Of the Middle Class (Valley News)

By now, the facts and figures are becoming pretty familiar. The unemployment rate jumped again last month, to 5.5 percent; the price of gas has climbed to more than $4 a gallon; and the dollar continues its downward slide.

But, as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., points out, statistics are one thing. Real life is another.

As the nation's economy faltered, Sanders made a request of his constituents and others on his e-mail list. He wanted to hear how they were coping. He said he expected to receive a few dozen replies. Instead, his office was swamped with more than 700 responses.

The comments and stories, which the senator's office has compiled in a booklet titled The Collapse of the Middle Class: Letters From Vermont and America, are moving testimony that the American boom is well and truly over.

During most of the 20th century, the buying power of the average family grew along with an economy that seemed infinitely expansive. The trend held steady despite intermittent recessions. But in 2007, at the end of the last economic expansion, the median family income was slightly less than it was in 2000, falling from about $61,000 to $60,500, according to inflation-adjusted Census figures published recently in The New York Times.

The difference might seem insignificant, but it represents the first real decline in wages for middle-income Americans since the U.S. government began keeping records. And stagnating wages are just a part of the problem. In the past seven years -- corresponding with the presidency of George W. Bush -- 5 million more Americans have slipped into poverty; 8 million have lost their health insurance; and 3 million have lost their pensions, according to Sanders. It's little wonder that people say they are falling behind as prices for food and gasoline rise.

"The responses that I received describe the decline of the American middle class from the perspective of those people who are living that decline," wrote Sanders for the Huffington Post last Saturday.

The e-mails, which keep pouring in and now total more than 1,800, make heart-rending reading. A few snippets:

"It costs me so much money in gas that my wife and I live on $6 per day to eat," wrote one.

"We have at times had to choose between baby food and heating fuel," said another.

"I spend over $200 a month on gas just driving back and forth to work (approximately 300 miles a week)," commented a single mother of four. "We have cut our budget again and again, there is little left to cut. Spring and summer bring a respite from the fuel bills of winter, but I worry what next winter will bring."

And a resident from East Corinth, wrote:

I have to say that this is the toughest year, financially, that I have ever experienced in my 41 years on this Earth. I have what used to be considered a decent job, I work hard, pinch my pennies, but the pennies have all but dried up. I am thankful that my employer understands that many of us cannot afford to drive to work five days a week. Instead, I work three 15-hour days. I have taken odd jobs to try to make ends meet. This winter, after keeping the heat just high enough to keep my pipes from bursting (the bedrooms are not heated and never got above 30 degrees), I began selling off my woodworking tools, snowblower (pennies on the dollar) and furniture that had been handed down in my family from the early 1800s just to keep the heat on. Today I am sad, broken and very discouraged. I am thankful that the winter cold is behind us for a while, but now gas prices are rising yet again. I just can't keep up.

The winter cold will return, which is why Congress should ensure before its summer recess that there are sufficient funds in the federal home-energy assistance program, known as LIHEAP, to cover the steep rise in prices. Thanks largely to Sanders' efforts, the Senate included $1 billion more for fuel aid in a supplemental appropriations bill approved last month. But the House has yet to act. Perhaps if Sanders read his e-mails aloud in that chamber, as he did in the Senate, lawmakers would understand the urgency.

State government and nonprofits must also do what they can before the chill of autumn. Those who can afford to do so should make generous donations to help people struggling to stay warm. Anyone in any doubt as to the dire need should dip into Sanders' mail, much of it posted on his Senate Web site.