Editorial: The new, sad reality (Brattleboro Reformer)

Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders has talked for years about economic inequities in America and how the wealthiest Americans have prospered at the expense of everyone else.

But even Sanders has been shocked by the extent of the hollowing out of the middle class that we have seen in the past year or so -- particularly as gasoline and heating oil prices have doubled in that time.

"A lot of people in Vermont who were just barely hanging on have been pushed over the edge into poverty," Sanders told the Reformer on Thursday.

Earlier this year, Sanders asked Vermonters to tell him what was happening in their lives and how they were dealing with the rising cost of food and energy.

"We got close to 700 responses and the numbers of people that responded and the pain those people are experiencing just blew me away," said Sanders.

He assembled some of those stories into a booklet, "The Collapse of the Middle Class: Letters from Vermont and America," that he is distributing around Washington. They are also at his Web site at Sanders.Senate.gov.

Sanders has read some of these stories on the Senate floor. They are heartbreaking to read.

* "We have at times had to choose between baby food and diapers and heating fuel. We've run out of heating fuel three times so far and the baby has ended up in the hospital with pneumonia two times."

* "By February we ran out of wood and I burned my mother's dining room furniture. I have no oil for hot water. We boil our water on the stove and pour it in the tub."

* "This winter, after keeping the heat just high enough to keep my pipes from bursting ... I began selling off my woodworking tools, snowblower ... 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 don't go to church many Sundays, because the gas is too expensive to drive there. Every thought of an activity is dependent on the cost. I can only purchase food from dented can stores ... I am stretched to the breaking point with no help in sight."

* "The middle class is no longer the middle class ... I've slipped into the lower class after a winter of double heating costs and now these new economic hits. How much more of a hit can people take? The future looks extremely bleak to me. I worry constantly about how I am going to pay my bills."

While the news media and the political elites downplay the growing class divide, Sanders wants to make sure every American knows it is real, it exists and it's getting worse.

"I thought it was important to put these stories on paper," Sanders said. "Ordinary people want to hear that someone cares about what they are going through. When nobody is talking about your reality, what does that do to you psychologically? That's why it's important for the media to get the word out that these people aren't alone."

Unfortunately, Sanders said, the news media has little interest in talking about what middle class families are going through.

"When I leave this office and go into the Senate chamber to cast a vote, I have to go through a whole bunch of reporters," he said. "They'll ask me about who (Barack) Obama is going to pick for vice president or whether Hillary (Clinton) will be able to adjust to being in the Senate again everyday. Nobody will ask me about what's happening to the middle class. We're talking about people who've worked their entire lives and they're not making it anymore."

Sanders said that since President Bush took office, five million Americans have fallen into poverty, eight million have lost their health insurance and three million have lost their pensions. The median annual household income for working-age Americans has declined by $2,500. Emergency food shelves can't keep up with the growing demand for assistance.

Someone who works full-time in America shouldn't be doing their grocery shopping at a food bank. Someone who works full-time in America shouldn't be burning the furniture to keep their water pipes from freezing in the winter. Someone who works full-time in America shouldn't have to choose between going to the doctor or putting gas in their car to get work. Yet that is the reality for more and more working Americans.

Sanders hopes that by telling the stories of people who aren't able to make it anymore in an economy where wages are falling and prices for the necessities of life are rising, Congress will take action to enact public policy to make life better for working Americans. It is badly needed.