Wednesday, July 23, 2008
The following is an adapted version of a recent article by Taibbi. You can read the original version here .
I am a single mother with a 9-year-old boy. To stay warm at night my son and I would pull off all the pillows from the couch and pile them on the kitchen floor. I’d hang a blanket from the kitchen doorway and we’d sleep right there on the floor. 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 our water on the stove and pour it in the tub. I’d like to order one of your flags and hang it upside down at the capital building we are certainly a country in distress. — Letter from a single mother in a Vermont city, to Senator Bernie Sanders
A few weeks back, I got a call from someone in the office of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders wanted to tell me about an effort his office had recently made to solicit information about his constituents’ economic problems. He sent out a notice on his e-mail list asking Vermont residents to “tell me what was going on in their lives economically.” He expected a few dozen letters at best — but got, instead, more than 700 in the first week alone. Some, like the excerpt posted above, sounded like typical tales of life for struggling single-parent families below the poverty line. More unnerving, however, were the stories Sanders received from people who held one or two or even three jobs, from families in which both spouses held at least one regular job — in other words, from people one would normally describe as middle-class. For example, this letter came from the owner of his own commercial cleaning service:
My 90-year-old father in Connecticut has recently become ill and asked me to visit him. I want to drop everything I am doing and go visit him, however, I am finding it hard to save enough money to add to the extra gas I’ll need to get there. I make more than I did a year ago and I don’t have enough to pay my property taxes this quarter for the first time in many years. They are due tomorrow.
(Article continues below)
This single mother buys clothes from thrift stores and unsuccessfully tried to sell her house to pay for her son’s schooling:
I don’t go to church many Sundays, because the gasoline is too expensive to drive there. Every thought of an activity is dependent on the cost.
Sanders got letters from working people who have been reduced to eating “cereal and toast” for dinner, from a 71-year-old man who has been forced to go back to work to pay for heating oil and property taxes, from a worker in an oncology department of a hospital who reports that clinically ill patients are foregoing cancer treatments because the cost of gas makes it too expensive to reach the hospital. The recurring theme is that employment, even dual employment, is no longer any kind of barrier against poverty. Not economic discomfort, mind you, but actual poverty. Meaning, having less than you need to eat and live in heated shelter — forgetting entirely about health care and dentistry, which has long ceased to be considered an automatic component of American middle-class life. The key factors in almost all of the Sanders letters are exploding gas and heating oil costs, reduced salaries and benefits, and sharply increased property taxes (a phenomenon I hear about all across the country at campaign trail stops, something that seems to me to be directly tied to the Bush tax cuts and the consequent reduced federal aid to states). And it all adds up to one thing.
“The middle class is disappearing,” says Sanders. “In real ways we’re becoming more like a third-world country.”
Here’s the thing: nobody needs me or Bernie Sanders to tell them that it sucks out there and that times are tougher economically in this country than perhaps they’ve been for quite a long time. We’ve all seen the stats — median income has declined by almost $2,500 over the past seven years, we have a zero personal savings rate in America for the first time since the Great Depression, and 5 million people have slipped below the poverty level since the beginning of the decade. And stats aside, most everyone out there knows what the deal is. If you’re reading this and you had to drive to work today or pay a credit card bill in the last few weeks you know better than I do for sure how fucked up things have gotten. I hear talk from people out on the campaign trail about mortgages and bankruptcies and bill collectors that are enough to make your ass clench with 100 percent pure panic.
None of this is a secret. Here, however, is something that is a secret: that this is a class issue that is being intentionally downplayed by a political/media consensus bent on selling the public a version of reality where class resentments, or class distinctions even, do not exist. Our “national debate” is always a thing where we do not talk about things like haves and have-nots, rich and poor, employers versus employees. But we increasingly live in a society where all the political action is happening on one side of the line separating all those groups, to the detriment of the people on the other side.