The Collapse of the Middle Class, Letters from Vermont and America

The official unemployment rate in the United States surged to 5.5 percent last month, the Labor Department announced this morning. The biggest increase in more than two decades will be on the front pages of the Saturday newspapers. Statistics are one thing. Real life is another.

As gas and oil prices soared and as the nation slipped into recession, I made a request to Vermonters on my e-mail list. I asked them to tell me what was going on in their lives economically. That was it. Frankly, I expected a few dozen replies. I was amazed, therefore, when my office received more than 700 responses from all across the state, as well as some from other states.

A Vermont mother wrote, "We have at times had to choose between baby food and heating fuel." A 55-year-old man from rural Pennsylvania said, "I am just tired, the harder that I work the harder it gets." A retired couple in Vermont asked, "Does anybody in Washington care?"

It is one thing to read dry economic statistics which describe the collapse of the American middle class. Since George W. Bush has been in office 5 million Americans have slipped into poverty, 8 million have lost their health insurance and 3 million have lost their pensions. In the last seven years median household income for working-age Americans has declined by $2,500. Our country, for the first time since the Great Depression, now has a zero personal savings rate and, all across the nation, emergency food shelves are being flooded with working families whose inadequate wages prevent them from feeding their families.

It is another thing to understand, in flesh-and-blood terms, what that means in the lives of ordinary Americans. The responses that I received describe the decline of the American middle class from the perspective of those people who are living that decline. They speak about families who, not long ago, thought they were economically secure, but now find themselves sinking into desperation and hopelessness.

These e-mails tell the stories of working families unable to keep their homes warm in the winter; workers worried about whether they'll be able to fill their gas tank to get to their jobs; and seniors, who spent their entire lives working, now wondering how they'll survive in old age. They describe the pain and disappointments that parents feel as they are unable to save money for their kids' college education, and the dread of people who live without health insurance.

In order to try and break through the complacency and isolation inside the Washington Beltway, I have read some of these stories on the floor of the Senate. I also assembled some of them in a booklet that I have distributed to every other senator because it is imperative that Congress and the corporate media understand the painful reality facing the middle class today so that we can develop the appropriate public policy to address this crisis.

The letters are not easy to read.

"We only eat two meals a day to conserve," one e-mail said. "My husband and I are very nervous about what will happen to us when we are old," wrote a woman from Vermont. "The pennies have all but dried up....Today I am sad, broken, and very discouraged," lamented another. "Some nights we eat cereal and toast for dinner because that's all I have." One man summed it up this way: "My mortgage is behind, we are at risk for foreclosure, and I can't keep up with my car payments."

Many of the e-mails have been about gasoline prices. "How devastating it has been for folks who travel great distances to get to their cancer treatment," one wrote. "I don't go to church many Sundays, because the gasoline is too expensive to drive there," said another. One man put it this way: "It costs me so much money in gas that my wife and I live on $6 per day to eat."

In straightforward, plan language, the e-mails tell a truth that all the economic statistics sanitize. "We are barely staying afloat," is how one writer summed it up.

More of the letters from Vermont and America are posted on his Web site here.