Letters to Sanders reveal depths of worry over economy (Associated Press)

By John Curran, Associated Press Writer

MONTPELIER, Vt. --For years, self-proclaimed socialist U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders has been railing about the shrinking middle class and the effect of rising costs on working people.

But he didn't know the extent of the problem until he appealed to his constituents, asking them recently to describe how America's beleaguered economy was affecting them. He expected a few dozen replies.

The request unleashed a torrent of e-mail messages and letters describing -- in soul-baring personal detail -- the economic tightrope being walked by people in Vermont and beyond who are struggling to stay warm and keep food on the table. More than 869 replies came in, prompting Sanders to publish some excerpts and read others on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

"The number just blew me away," he said Tuesday. "The power and poignancy and the pain expressed in these letters was just heartbreaking. These weren't interviews done at the homeless shelter. These were middle-class people, working people or seniors. These weren't people on the margin. By and large, most of the people were working people and most owned their own homes.

"It seems to me that the decline of the middle class has been taking place for years, but the rising price of gas has taken people over the economic cliff. Now, many people are desperate, and the level of desperation has really surprised me," said Sanders, I-Vt.

The names of the respondents were not included in the booklet of excerpts published two weeks ago.

In one, a single mother with a 9-year-old son told of a winter spent huddling for warmth, the only heat in her home coming from an old wood stove hooked up to an unused chimney in the kitchen.

"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 water on the stove and pour it in the tub," she wrote.

Another, from a woman in a rural area: "My husband and I have lived in Vermont our whole lives. We have two small children (a baby and a toddler) and felt fortunate to own our own house and land but due to the increasing fuel prices we have at times had to choose between baby food/diapers and heating fuel."

A 65-year-old woman who, like her husband, is retired, said they have Medicare but can't afford its prescription coverage. They eat two meals a day, to conserve money. "Now with oil prices the way they are we cannot afford to heat our home unless my husband cuts and splits wood, which is a real hardship as he has had his back fused and should not be working most of the day to keep up with the wood."

A 41-year-old man who lives near the New Hampshire border wrote to say that the cost of gas, heating oil, food and taxes had made for the toughest year he'd ever experienced, financially: "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."

"I am 55 years old and worse off than my adult children," wrote one man, from rural Pennsylvania: "I have worked since age 16. I don't live from paycheck to paycheck. I live day to day."

A woman from a central Vermont town wrote about how she and her husband "followed all the rules," getting college educations and later government jobs and working to keep good credit. Now, she says, they have so little in the bank it doesn't seem worth keeping it there, and money is so tight that they consider ordering a pizza a splurge.

"Slowly, though, we have sunk back to the poor' days...It doesn't seem right that after working hard and following all the rules for our lives, now, at 60, we're tumbling down," she wrote.

A 31-year-old woman with two children wrote that her husband was contemplating quitting his job because the pay now barely covers the gas it takes his pickup truck to get there. "Meanwhile, my mortgage is behind, we are at risk for foreclosure and I can't keep up with my car payments," she wrote. "My parents, both in their 60s, are back to work so that they can make ends meet, and struggle to come up with enough gas money so they can get to doctor's appointments."

In an interview, Sanders acknowledged that the "Letters from Vermont" was not a statistical analysis, but that the responses it elicited are important because they underscore the pain and suffering behind economic statistics.

"It just tells me that there is an urgency there," said Sanders, I-Vt. "This is not just Vermont. This is all over America. People are hurting, they're hurting deeply and they are very, very worried about the future, both in terms of their own lives and their kids. We have got to respond to that."