Bernie Sanders is a US Senator from the state of Vermont. If you think he's like most American politicians, you might be surprised. Vermont isn't like most American states. Sanders isn't a Republican, and he's not a Democrat either. He's the only Socialist in the US Congress though he runs as an independent. People call him Bernie because that's what he asks that they call him. Vermont is a tiny state in area and population, frequently vying with Wyoming for the fewest people in population. It is almost entirely rural and within it is an area known as the Northeast Kingdom. The Kingdom is much like Appalachia in demographics meaning it's one of the poorest areas of the country. The rest of Vermont, outside the state's largest city of Burlington, is solid old-fashioned New England of the sort your see in Currier & Ives prints or picture in your imagination when thinking of cozy country inns at the peak of autumn. Livestock outnumber the people. Despite this, Vermonters are not naive. They have an excellent education system with high literacy rates and one of the highest per capita populations of college-educated people in the country. Vermont's government is much like its people; budgets are on-time and deficits are unthinkable. Responsibility is a big deal in this little state and Vermonters expect its government to be so. It is one of the few states to have a AAA bond rating from Moody's. Jingoism and bling do not play well in Vermont. You'll get more respect for having the wisdom to wear sensible shoes than Jimmy Choos. The cost of living in Vermont, because of its extremely rural nature and small population has always been high. Yet if it is high, it's because Vermonters are all about living within their means. Vermonters don't spend unless they've got the money to spend. It is, as they say, "the price of living of in paradise...." if your idea of paradise is eight months of winter and the smell of manure all summer. This is reflected in their shopping habits. There are a few high-end stores in Burlington, but the rest of the state is served by discount and outlet malls. Vermonters like a good deal. So when thrifty and sensible Vermont gets into trouble, you have to wonder just what is happening in the rest of the country. Senator Bernie asked Vermonters to write him about what was happening in Vermont so that he could tell congress what the state of his state was. The replies are eye-opening and I'll share a few of them with you. Here Bernie prefaces his booklet: It is one thing to read dry economic statistics which describe the collapse of the American middle class. It is another thing to understand, in flesh and blood terms, what that means in the lives of ordinary Americans. Yes, 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. Yes, in the last seven years median household income for working-age Americans has declined by $2,500. Yes, 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. No doubt Bernie's missive to the country was timed to coincide with the construction of Obama's platform, but it doesn't erase the realities of the people who write in: My husband and I have lived in Vermont our whole lives. We have two small children (a baby and a toddler) and felt fortunate to own our own house and land but due to the increasing fuel prices we have at times had to choose between baby food/diapers and heating fuel. We've run out of heating fuel three times so far and the baby has ended up in the hospital with pneumonia two of the times. We try to keep the kids warm with an electric space heater on those nights, but that just doesn't do the trick.-------------------I am a single mother with a 9 year old boy. We lived this past winter without any heat at all. Fortunately someone gave me an old wood stove. I had to hook it up to an old/unused chimney we had in the kitchen. I couldn't even afford a chimney liner (the price of liners went up with the price of fuel). 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.-----------------As a couple with one child, earning about $55,000/year, we have been able to eat out a bit, buy groceries and health insurance, contribute to our retirement funds and live a relatively comfortable life financially. We've never accumulated a lot of savings, but our bills were always paid on time and we never had any interest on our credit card. Over the last year, even though we've tightened our belts (not eating out much, watching purchases at the grocery store, not buying "extras" like a new TV, repairing the washer instead of buying a new one...), and we find ourselves with over $7,000 of credit card debt and trying to figure out how to pay for braces for our son! I work 50 hours per week to help earn extra money to catch up, but that also takes a toll on the family life -- not spending those 10 hours at home with my husband and son makes a big difference for all of us. My husband hasn't had a raise in three years, and his employer is looking to cut out any extra benefits they can to lower their expenses, which will increase ours! -----------------Yesterday I paid for our latest home heating fuel delivery: $1,100. I also paid my $2,000+ credit-card balance, much of which bought gas and groceries for the month. My husband and I are very nervous about what will happen to us when we are old. Although we have three jobs between us and participate in 403B retirement plans, we have not saved enough for a realistic post-work life if we survive to our life expectancy. As we approach the traditional retirement age, we are slowly paying off our daughter's college tuition loan and trying to keep our heads above water. We have always lived frugally. We buy used cars and store brand groceries, recycle everything, walk or carpool when possible and plastic our windows each fall. Even so, if/when our son decides to attend college, we will be in deep debt at age 65. P.S. Please don't use my name. I live in a small town, and this is so embarrassing ---------------- I, too, have been struggling to overcome the increasing costs of gas, heating oil, food, taxes, etc. I have to say that this is the toughest year, financially, that I have ever experienced in my 41 years on this earth. I have what used to be considered a decent job, I work hard, pinch my pennies, but the pennies have all but dried up. I am thankful that my employer understands that many of us cannot afford to drive to work 5 days a week. Instead, I work three 15 hour days. I have taken odd jobs to try to make ends meet. This winter, after keeping the heat just high enough to keep my pipes from bursting (the bedrooms are not heated and never got above 30 degrees) I began selling off my woodworking tools, snowblower, (pennies on the dollar) and furniture that had been handed down in my family from the early 1800s, just to keep the heat on. Today I am sad, broken, and very discouraged. I am thankful that the winter cold is behind us for a while, but now gas prices are rising yet again. I just can't keep up.---------------- I live in the beautiful Northeast Kingdom. There are only a handful of decent jobs available, and the wages everywhere else are not very good. My husband and I have done what we had to in order to survive and to make a decent life for our two children, aged 7 and 4. He has worked steadily at a local plant for 15 years, and I have worked part-time in order to pay the bills without having to rely on daycare. We live a modest life and do not live beyond our means. We have no flat-screen TV, no cell phones, no iPods, and have only one vehicle payment. We thought that finally, maybe, we would be able to get ahead. Now we find that instead of a feeling of comfort, we have a feeling of dread. It seems like every time we do the right thing and try to move ahead for our family, something out of our control happens in order to slap us back down. I have always been a big pusher of if you can do something to change your situation, do it. Now, even though we are doing everything right, my husband and I find ourselves extremely worried about this winter. I have no answers as to how to make the oil prices lower. My husband and I have tried, again, to do the right things by limiting our driving and by setting the heat at 68 degrees all winter. We even had our home made as energy efficient as possible, yet we now find ourselves unsure if we will be able to pay for both the mortgage and our oil next winter.