Between the Lines: Tales of the recession — Vt. style

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

With good jobs and college educations, in their early 50s 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.

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 us 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 health care 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.”

Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at http://middleburyvt.blogspot.com. Email him at [email protected].

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