The broke, broken in America (Universal Press)

RICHARD REEVES Universal Press Syndicate

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. Coming home after working abroad for a couple of months means looking at mountains of mail. But a lot of it is from banks offering credit cards and from politicians offering salvation, both for a price. You can throw that stuff out without opening any of it.

This time, the letter on top was from Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, the former Socialist mayor turned Independent in Washington.

I had never seen anything from him before he's a pretty marginalized guy so I opened it. "Letters From Vermont and America" was the title of a 15-page booklet with excerpts of 600 letters from constituents answering an e-mail query Sanders sent out asking about their daily lives.

You are probably not going to like this column I hated reading the letters or think that I'm just talking about a bunch of bums. But some of the things people talk about here, including losing their homes, have happened within my own family. Some of the letters are from very (and sometimes suddenly) poor people, including men talking about living in basements to stay warm or burning the dining room furniture for fuel in February in the northland.

But most are from ordinary people who worked hard all their lives, played by the rules, sent their kids off to college and are now broke or being broken in America.

The things people mention most often are, predictably, gasoline and fuel oil costs, health care and property taxes. Here are a couple of samples: "Yesterday I paid our latest home heating fuel delivery: $1,100. I also paid my $2,000-plus credit card balance, which bought gas and groceries for the month. As we approach the traditional retirement age, we are slowly paying off our daughter's college tuition loan and trying to keep our heads above water.

. . . Please don't use my name.

I live in a small town and this is so embarrassing." "I am so frightened . . . I spent this winter with my heat turned down to 53 degrees.

I am a teacher and have my master's degree. Everything is going up except my salary, which next year will go up slightly above 1 percent. . . . 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." "I am a registered school nurse and my husband is a self-employed bread baker.

We are in our mid-30s and have two young children. We always thought if we went to college, earned four-year degrees and worked hard, we would be able to live a decent life. . .. We both work very, very hard to provide needed services to our Vermont communities.

Yet we scratch our heads when trying to budget our income. How can it be that two college-educated individuals with respectable careers are in such a financial bind?" "My husband and I followed all the rules. He grew up in urban projects and went into the military service in Vietnam so he could get GI Bill benefits and go to college.

I grew up picking strawberries as a migrant worker, but I was able to go to college on scholarships. . . . It doesn't seem right that after working hard and following all the rules for our lives, now, at 60, we're tumbling down." All those writers are making between $40,000 and $55,000 a year. All talked about the danger of being wiped out by the coming winter.

O ther letters are from people in worse shape: "I am thankful that my employer understands that many of us cannot afford to drive to work five days a week. Instead, I work three 15-hour days . . . keeping the heat at home just high enough to keep the pipes from bursting.

The bedrooms are not heated and stay at 30 degrees. . . . And I still can't keep up." "We eat cereal and toast for dinner some nights because that is all I have." "My parents, both in their 60s, are back to work so they can make ends meet and struggle to get enough gas money to see their doctors.

They are opting to close their house up for the winter and stay with my uncle so they don't have to put oil in the furnace. . . . Meanwhile, my mortgage is behind, and we are at risk for foreclosure . . ." Many letters ended like these three:

"What has this country come to?" . . . "Does anyone in Washington care?" . . . "Please help us."