Letters From Vermont (New York Times)


Op-Ed Columnist

Despite the focus on the housing crisis, gasoline prices and the economy in general, the press has not done a good job capturing the intense economic anxiety — and even dread, in some cases — that has gripped tens of millions of working Americans, including many who consider themselves solidly middle class.

Working families are not just changing their travel plans and tightening up on purchases at the mall. There is real fear and a great deal of suffering out there.

A man who described himself as a conscientious worker who has always pinched his pennies wrote the following to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont:

"This winder, 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 people we have heard the least from in this epic campaign season have been the voters — ordinary Americans. We get plenty of polling data and alleged trends, but we don't hear the voices of real people.

Senator Sanders asked his constituents to write to him about their experiences in a difficult economy. He was blown away by both the volume of responses and "the depth of the pain" of many of those who wrote.

A 55-year-old man who said his economic condition was "very scary," wrote: "I don't live from paycheck to paycheck. I live day to day." He has no savings, he said. His gas tank is never more than a quarter full, and he can't afford to buy the "food items" he would like.

His sense of his own mortality was evident in every sentence, and he wondered how long he could continue. "I am concerned as gas prices climb daily," he said. "I am just tired. The harder that I work, the harder it gets. I work 12 to 14 hours daily, and it just doesn't help."

A working mother with two young children wrote: "Some nights we eat cereal and toast for dinner because that's all I have."

Another woman said she and her husband, both 65, "only eat two meals a day to conserve."

A woman who has been trying to sell her house for two years and described herself as "stretched to the breaking point," told the senator, "I don't go to church many Sundays because the gasoline is too expensive to drive there."

Many of the letters touched on the extremely harsh winter that pounded Vermont and exacerbated the economic distress. With fuel prices sky-high, many residents turned to wood to heat their homes. A woman with a 9-year-old son wrote:

"By February, we ran out of wood and I burned my mother's dining room furniture. ... I'd like to order one of your flags and hang it upside down at the Capitol building. ... We are certainly a country in distress."

Senator Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, remarked on the disconnect between the harsh economic reality facing so many Americans and the Pollyanna claims of the Bush administration and others over the past several years.

The assertion that the economy was strong and getting stronger, repeated with the frequency of a mantra, hid the reality that working Americans have been taking a real beating, said Senator Sanders.

He pointed out that over the past seven or eight years, millions of Americans have lost health insurance coverage, lost pensions, and become deeply mired in debt. During that period, the median annual household income for working-age Americans fell by about $2,400.

"Americans work the longest hours of any people in the industrialized world," the senator said. "We even surpassed Japan."

But despite all that hard work — despite explosive improvements in technology and increased worker productivity — the middle class is struggling, losing ground and there's a very real possibility that the next generation of workers will have a lower standard of living than today's.

The letters to Senator Sanders offer a glimpse into the real lives of ordinary people in an economic environment that was sculpted to favor the very rich. One of the letters was from a woman in central Vermont who said she and her husband are in their mid-30s, are college-educated and have two young children.

"We are feeling distraught," she said, "that we may never ‘get ahead' but will always be pedaling to just keep up."