Audience members share their stories of hard times
ST. ALBANS — "The major issue facing the president and facing Congress is to create the millions of decent paying jobs we need to put our people back to work," U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, told a crowd of nearly 200 Monday night during a town hall meeting at the St. Albans Historical Museum.
The crowd was so large some had to stand in the hallway in order to meet fire safety limits. Topics focused primarily on the economy and proposed budget cuts, occasionally veering into other areas.
Sanders said he wanted to bring together people who are struggling and counter the idea that the recession is over.
Millions of people are in the same position of not knowing how they will pay for their children's education, working longer hours for stagnant or declining wages, or being unable to stretch their Social Security check to cover all of their expenses, said Sanders.
"When we hear from each other, when we lean on each other, we become stronger," Sanders said.
In a familiar Sanders theme, he turned to the gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else. The richest 400 families own more wealth than the bottom 150 million families combined, said Sanders, with the top 1 percent of income earners taking home 23 percent of the nation's wealth each year, more than the combined income of the bottom 50 percent.
In a recession, deficits increase because of declining tax revenue, Sanders explained. After giving billions in tax breaks to the wealthy, fighting two wars, and bailing out Wall Street, "they have now decided the best way to balance the budget is to throw 200,000 children off Head Start," Sanders said, referring to a budget bill passed by Republicans in the House.
In addition to cuts to Head Start, the bill cuts funding for Community Action, Pell Grants, Planned Parenthood, heating assistance and other programs that benefit low and moderate income families, including the Women, Infants and Children program, which provides nutrition assistance to pregnant women, infants and toddlers.
"I will do everything I can not to allow to allow these types of cuts to go through," Sanders vowed to loud applause.
Paul Berman, director of Head Start, for the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO), said the cuts will deny 218,000 children nationwide access to Head Start, 336 of them from Vermont. Nationwide, 50,000 Head Start teachers will lose their jobs, more than 100 in Vermont.
There are more than 1,200 children on a waiting list for Head Start and pre-Head Start, which assists pregnant women and families with infants, reaches only 4 percent of those eligible, said Berman.
Jeanette Weilland, president of United Electrical Workers Local 208 in St. Albans, which represents contract workers at the Citizenship and Immigration Services Service Center, spoke about life as a contract worker. Every few years the contractor changes, but the work remains the same, she said.
When the contractor changes, workers often face changes and cuts to benefits and pay. With the most recent change, Weilland said, workers were offered a health care plan with a $2,000 deductible for a single person and a $4,000 deductible for a family.
Some non-union workers at the center have not had a raise for seven years, she said.
A St. Albans man who gave only his first name, Henry, wanted to know why there has been no cost-of-living increase for seniors and those receiving Social Security disability for two years. Sanders said he had tried to get a bill through Congress to give an additional $250 to Social Security recipients at the same time Congress was voting to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.
The tax cuts were renewed, but only 35 Senators voted for the $250 in one-time benefits for those on Social Security. "Two hundred and fifty dollars, that's a good dinner in Washington, D.C.," said Sanders.
"The idea that $250, or a cost of living adjustment of a few hundred dollars, means anything to people living on the edge, I'm afraid my colleagues just don't understand it," said Sanders.
Sandra, who also did not give a last name, said she has turned off her heat during the day so she can pay for food.
"That's reality," Sanders said after a moment. "People going without heat so they can afford food."
Linda Maloney, an Episcopal priest from Enosburg Falls, offered to help do a study of how much time younger retirees volunteer. Raising the retirement age will negatively impact community organizations and churches that depend on them, she suggested. "We need to show what retired people do for our society," Maloney said.
"What you're witnessing is a massive campaign of misinformation," Sanders said of the argument that cuts need to be made in Social Security benefits.
Social Security has a $2.6 trillion surplus. It can pay out full benefits without any changes for the next 26 years and 78 percent of benefits after that, Sanders said.
"It's an ideological battle," he said of the debate over Social Security. "They would prefer people to invest on Wall Street," Sanders added, provoking scattered laughter from the crowd.
There is currently an income cap on Social Security of $106,000. Even people making millions only pay Social Security taxes on the first $106,000 of their earnings. Lifting that cap would solve the problem of Social Security only being able to pay 78 percent of benefits, 26 years from now, suggested Sanders
Brittany Weilland, a student at Johnson State College, asked about the impact of the Citizens United decision.
Sanders explained the Citizens United decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that corporations are persons and "as people they are entitled to unfettered free speech."
In the next election cycle, corporations will be able to spend unlimited amounts on campaign ads without having to identify themselves as the source of the advertisement, he explained.
"This has had a terrible effect on our political system," said Sanders, causing legislators to "think twice" before voting against the interests of corporations and the wealthy.
A man asked how Congress can justify raising the debt ceiling, why the U.S. is rebuilding other countries while Vermonters drive on pot-filled roads, and why the U.S. doesn't back out of the United Nations.
Sanders said there is waste in the federal budget, pointing first to Dept. of Defense contractors, 200 of whom have been convicted of defrauding the federal government in the last three years, a number which drew gasps from the crowd.
He then turned to the issue of government revenue. Two years ago, Exxon Mobile made $19 billion in profit, but received a $156 million tax refund. The use of offshore tax havens by the wealthy costs the U.S. $100 billion in lost revenue annually, according to Sanders.
"The wealthiest pay an effective tax rate less than many people sitting in this room," said Sanders.
Kate Trudell, a teacher from Grand Isle, suggested the U.S. has veered from the Constitution and the government has gotten too big. She quoted a young man she said she has spoken with in Burlington who had recently graduated from the University of Vermont. The young man reportedly told Trudell, "I'm not worried if I find a job or not, the government will take care of me."
Sanders said she should have told the young man he's "in for a big surprise." There are very few, if any, government programs that assist able-bodied adults without children.
Pointing to inequality in the U.S., Sanders said, "I don't know that's what the Founding Fathers … had in mind."
George Barton, a disabled veteran, thanked Sanders' office for helping him secure assistance. Speaking to the proposed budget cuts, Barton said, "Last I checked the government answers to us. We don't work for the government. The government works for us." His remarks drew widespread applause.
"The future lies with people standing up," Sanders said in his response.