Sen. Sanders rouses local audience

By:  Neal Goswami
Bennington Banner

BENNINGTON -- Vermont's firebrand junior senator rallied hundreds of constituents at a town-hall style meeting Wednesday, decrying proposed cuts to the federal budget impacting low-income Americans and vowing to push back against those efforts in Congress.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent known for his bluster, delivered an energetic recitation of facts and figures to an appreciative audience of about 300 at Mount Anthony Union Middle School. The message was clear: The recession declared to be over by economists and pundits is ongoing for millions of Americans and thousands of Vermonters.

"Anybody who thinks that the recession is over is a total idiot," Sanders said to applause and cheers.

Unemployment still high

Sanders promised to focus on issues that others in Congress have avoided. The government, for instance, lists the national unemployment rate at 8.9 percent. But when those who have given up looking for work are factored in the number jumps to about 16 percent, he said.

"We have a very, very long way to go, and the reason that I am holding meetings like this all over the state is because the only way to put pressure on Washington is when people stand up," Sanders said. Washington must focus on creating jobs that pay a livable wage, according to Sanders. Those making $10 to $12 an hour will soon be "going into debt," he said, as gas prices, heating fuel and food prices continue to rise.

"Theissue is not just jobs, it is jobs that pay the American people a livable wage," he said.

Additionally, there are 20 million more people in poverty today than in 1973, according to Sanders. And 20 percent of American children now live in poverty, the highest rate among industrialized nations, he said.

"What you see out there is people are working incredibly hard and they're going nowhere in a hurry," Sanders said. "You know why people are angry? It's because they're working really hard and at the end of the day they are worse off than they used to be."

The middle-class is disappearing, Sanders said. "Today, the top 1 percent earns more income than the bottom 50 percent," he said. "The top 400 families [in the country] own more wealth in America today than the bottom 50 percent of families. What is going on is the gap between the very wealthy and everybody else is growing wider."

Sanders attributed the nation's growing budget deficit, now at about $1.6 trillion, to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and new military action in Libya. The problem was exasperated by the extension of tax breaks for the wealthy, he said, and the "crooks on Wall Street through their greed and recklessness and irresponsible behavior."

He decried efforts in Congress to reduce the deficit by cutting programs like Head Start, Pell grants and community health centers. "We didn't get to where we are because we spend too much money on our children," Sanders said. "I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that these cuts do not happen."

Instead, Sanders said he will push for "a little shared sacrifice." He has proposed a 5.4 percent surcharge on income over $1 million, which he said will net the federal government an additional $50 billion.

Despite the hard message he delivered, Sanders said things can improve. "We have gone through very, very hard times in the past. I believe that if we stand together, if we're willing to stand up and fight, if we're willing to make sure that justice prevails, that fairness prevails in this country, we can turn this thing around."

Constituents raised several issues, too. Sanders said he opposed a "flat tax" because it would largely benefit the wealthy. He decried a recent Supreme Court decision known as "Citizens United" declaring that a corporation is a person.

One woman said economic policies now in place are returning the country to the Gilded Age. "We're going back to the days that my grandparents lived in with the robber barons and the lower middle-class," she said. "What can we do to stop this stupidity?"

In response to questions, Sanders said he continues to support the shutdown of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vermont when its license expires next year. He also said he will continue to press the U.S. Department of Transportation for more funding for passenger rail service in Vermont.