Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Bernie Sanders' Recession Tales

Barbara and Shawn Thompson-Snow used to think they could live out the American Dream.

With good jobs and college educations, in their early 50’s they seemed set for a happy ending. Ahead of them stretched a few more years of full-time work -- then the chance to cut back to part-time, to travel and enjoy life.

Five college loans later and with a second kid still in college, that now seems like a laughable fantasy. They might as well try flapping their arms and flying from their Lincoln home to the top of Mt. Abe.

Together they work two jobs out of five different locations between Salisbury and Burlington. They’re digging into their retirement savings to pay for college. Retirement seems as remote as the Arctic Circle.

While Shawn and Barbara struggle to meet the promises they made to their kids, they know they’re in better shape than many Vermonters. And that they’re far better off than those in other parts of the country, where the jobs have been shipped overseas or booted by the banks.

The deferred dreams of people like the Thompson-Snows are much on the minds of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Almost alone among senators, Sanders worries that America is leaving the poor and middle class behind.

Always a champion of working people, he has recently collected the stories of scores of Vermonters. They tell of a time when the lives of many have grown worse in the wake of two wars, a Great Recession, widespread corporate malfeasance, and an economy where the rich get richer and the rest of see our real-dollar incomes drop.

“For the first time ever, my husband and I are finding ourselves having to apply for food stamps, fuel assistance, and even lunch money for our son,” the wife of an Addison County building contractor wrote Sanders. “Without [my husband’s] work, we just can’t make ends meet. I am not sure what we are going to do.”

A 35-year-old man from Middlebury wrote that he’s had to move back in with his parents to make ends meet, while working at a chain retailer an hour away: “The price of housing is too expensive for low-income people like myself to afford even if I want to buy a house. I even want to get married, but right now I cannot afford marriage.”

These stories are collected in a booklet titled “Struggling through the Recession: Letters from Vermont,” available at http://1.usa.gov/gmAlOZ.

These folks are hardly alone. Rutgers University researchers reported last year that nearly three-quarters of American were themselves out of work or knew a relative or close friend who was unemployed.

That’s not just a recession. That’s the sound of America falling apart. The other shoe dropping. It’s the land of James McMurtry’s song, “We Can’t Make it Here Anymore”:

Just try it yourself, Mr. CEO
See how far 5.50 an hour will go
Take a part-time job at one of your stores
Bet you can't make it here anymore …

I hate the men sent the jobs away
I can see them all now,
They haunt my dreams
All lily-white and squeaky-clean

They've never known want
They'll never know need
Their [stuff] don't stink and
Their kids won't bleed
Their kids won't bleed
In the dirty little war
And we can't make it here anymore

So what is the response of the two political parties to this impending wasteland, to the floor caving in under the middle class?

Better unemployment benefits so people can get back on their feet? Jumpstarting green jobs to benefit the economy and environment?

Even the thought seems like a cruel joke.

Having announced plans to downsize Social Security and Medicare, the Republicans want to reduce government to the size where they “can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” in the immortal words of Grover Norquist.

You only need to look at Wisconsin to see that unions – so vital to many in the middle class -- are also being targeted for extinction.

And the Democrats? Bought-off and gutless, they’ve once again gone back to playing Republican-Lite.

The debate in Congress isn’t about whether to cut, but how deeply: Into the tendons? Or all the way to bone?

They’re just arguing about how much to stick it to those of us who aren’t rich.

As Sanders pointed out in a press conference this week, “The House-passed (Republican) budget bill would throw 336 Vermont children off of Head Start and cut or eliminate Pell (college) grants for 13,000 Vermont college students … Some 37,000 Vermonters would lose access to primary health care because of a $1.3 billion cut to community health centers.”

To begin to level the playing field, Sanders is calling for a surtax on incomes of more than $1 million a year and the elimination of tax loopholes for Big Oil.

His bill will pass the Congress right after Sarah Palin says she supports healthcare reform. But give Bernie credit for articulating the plight of the poor and middle class, and for continuing to champion a greater measure of economic equality.

In the meantime, many Vermonters look around them in despair.

"I am financially ruined,” a 46-year old teacher from Charlotte told the senator. Unable to get full-time work, she said, “I find myself depressed and demoralized, and my confidence is shattered. Worst of all, as I hear more and more talk about deficit reduction and further layoffs, I have the agonizing feeling that the worst may not be behind us."


For more on unemployment see Paul Krugman's NY Times column of March 18, 2011, at http://nyti.ms/i4Fq1U.

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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Town Meeting Day: 5/12 Winter

Mother Nature threw pretty much everything she had at us on Monday during Town Meeting Day -- snow, rain, sleet, hail, graupel, black ice, and minor flooding. The only thing missing was a tornado. But maybe there was one and I just missed it.

Town Meeting Day is of course the one solemn day each year when people all over the great state of Vermont gather together and pretend they can understand a municipal budget.

In Middlebury's case alone, the budget ran to nearly 1,000 lines. (Line 55: Sales/Accident Reports; Line 812, Operating Supplies for Flag Football.)

I dutifully attended Town Meeting in Middlebury, where I was disappointed to find that the cozy confines of the Town Hall Theater were not in use this year for the meeting. Instead we were stuck with the cavernous, badly lit, generally pall-inducing municipal gym.

Apparently the town officials wanted us to leave early.

Sitting in that gym always reminds me of taking finals exams at my high school, which was built using the same kind of Depression Chic architecture. Just being in the gym, useful though the space may be, evokes a sense of exam-time déjà vu, guaranteed to make me wish I was home watching reruns of Family Guy.

This year's meeting saw the return of Town Moderator Jim Douglas (né Governor Douglas) after an absence of at least a couple years.

Say what you want about Douglas’s politics as governor, but he does run a smooth meeting.
And with his radio-trained voice, he can make even the dullest of subjects sound as if they should be interesting, mellifluously reading a budget item about "a single-axle, medium-duty plow truck" as if it were the latest news from the Middle East.

The former governor's characteristically dry wit was unfortunately little in evidence. It was only after the end of discussion and voting that he got a chance to crack wise.

Rising from the audience, former select board member Peg Martin asked Douglas, "Mr. Moderator, is it illegal for me to offer a perhaps germane comment?"

"Well," he replied, barely suppressing a smile, "we won't know until we hear it."

Then noting that the meeting had in fact moved on to "Other Business," Douglas allowed that “virtually anything is germane at this point."

Even with a 2.6% tax increase at a time when we are barely digging ourselves out of the Great Recession, the town budget was approved by an overwhelming majority. Just a couple of scattered "no" votes arose from the gathering of happy campers.

The voters are just fine with expenditures totaling $6.8 million. But ask them to allocate another $5,000 for the local Humane Society, and things get lively. Suddenly the question under discussion is the moral equivalent of war, with heartfelt opinions voiced on both sides of the question.

In comparison to last year when the Humane Society came out on the losing end of two votes, the organization was better prepared for this year's meeting and indeed fared better -- coming away with its requested appropriation from the town.

As more than one speaker noted, the appropriation of $5,000 was greater than the town grants to some of the worthy agencies that serve humans, among them Women in Crisis and the John Graham shelter for homeless people.

On other topics, one could pick up all kinds of momentarily interesting though ultimately useless information at Town Meeting.

We learned, for example, that Middlebury has 64 miles of town roads and an astonishing 15 miles of sidewalk. (Imagine what it would take to shovel the snow off all that sidewalk if it were done by hand.)

We were informed that the approximately $47,000 in annual debt on the new police headquarters is less money than it costs to heat the municipal building each year. (Another reason to hate that gym.) The town is facing an eye-popping 17% increase in the annual cost for employee health insurance. The newer diesel engines in town trucks now use urea – which according to Stan Warner, the town director of operations, sometimes makes the exhaust smell like French fries and at other times like hotdogs. A product called Ice B’Gone now supplements the 24 tons of salt the town throws on its roads each winter and, because it is less corrosive, is extending the life of our vehicles.

It was also a revelation to find that winter consists of five-twelfths of the year. For budgeting purposes, anyway, the town’s yearly budget for highway maintenance is divided up into “summer” consisting of seven-twelfths of the year, and “winter” for the other five-twelfths of the year.

Remember that old joke about how winter in Vermont is 10 months long, followed by two months of bad sledding? Not anymore. Now winter accounts for only half that much of the year, five-twelfths in all.

Apparently global warming truly has taken its toll.

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