Sanders holds 'give and take' sessions (Rutland Herald & Times Argus)

Students grill the senator, he urges them to get involved

By Louis Porter Vermont Press Bureau

MONTPELIER - They are too young to vote but that didn't stop Sen. Bernard Sanders from asking students at two high schools in Central Vermont on Monday what they think he should do in the U.S. Senate.

And they told him.

Ryan Wingate, 17, who helped organize Sanders' visit to Montpelier High School, asked if enough was being done by the U.S. Senate and House to stop the genocide in Darfur. Wingate said that several teachers at the school talked during their classes about the conflict in the region of Africa, and student-made posters about the genocide were hung in the school.

"We are not doing enough," Sanders said. But in this case it is not only the responsibility of the United States but of the United Nations and others as well, Sanders said.

He may soon travel to the region.

"I may have more to tell you" after that trip, Sanders said.

Sanders had visited with students at Spaulding High School in Barre earlier in the day.

Mostly Sanders talked about problems closer to home. Poverty in the United States is increasing and the cost of health care, fuel and other needs are increasing, he told the students.

"The middle class is shrinking," Sanders said. "Their standard of living is declining."

The high school students he talked to Monday run a real risk of being the first generation in modern American history in which a majority will have a lower economic position than their parents.

"Parents work hard and they hope their children do better than they do," Sanders said. In part because of the increased pressure some families are facing, Sanders announced Monday that he will push for a $1 billion increase in federal heating fuel assistance programs in the U.S., he said. A typical household this year will pay $1,000 to keep their houses warm, an increase of about 22 percent from last year, according to Sanders' office.

The number of households getting help with their heating bills increased 26 percent nationally, from 4.6 million in 2003 to about 5.8 million in 2007, according to Sanders' office. Meanwhile, federal support only increased by 10 percent.

There is some encouraging news on another front, however. A recently approved bill increased Pell grants for college students and created a debt forgiveness program for those in public service, as well as lowering student loan interest rates.

Energy saving efforts like more efficient vehicles and LED or light-emitting diode light bulbs, which will use far less power than incandescent bulbs, are moving ahead and offer hope, Sanders said.

Montpelier High School student Stephanie Rippon, 17, wanted to know Sanders' position on illegal immigration.

A good question, Sanders said. Immigration is an important part of what made the country what it is, Sanders said.

"We become a better people as a result of it," he said. But illegal immigration and some legal temporary worker programs are sometimes used by employers to drive wages down, the senator said.

"They are exploited and they drive wages down," Sanders said of illegal immigrant workers.

Whether they agree with him or not, the important thing for the students at Montpelier High and Spaulding High School was that they get involved, Sanders said.

"Even though some, or most, of you are not 18 years of age, you are citizens," he said. "A lot of young people do not have much of a sense about what government does or does not do and what politics is about."

"If ordinary people do not get involved in the political process there will be a void. That void will be filled by powerful special interests."