Letters From Vermont: Rural Middle America in Desperation

Discussion in 'Et Cetera, Et Cetera' started by jason_els, Jun 6, 2008.

  1. jason_els

    jason_els <img border="0" src="/images/badges/gold_member.gi

    Joined:
    Dec 16, 2004
    Messages:
    10,576
    Likes Received:
    25
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Warwick, NY, USA
    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.
     
  2. Principessa

    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Nov 22, 2006
    Messages:
    19,494
    Likes Received:
    28
    Gender:
    Female
    Thank you for posting this Jason_els, even though it made me teary eyed. :frown1:

    Recently, I touched on this topic in another thread.

    I wish the newscasters would stop debating about whether or not this is a recession or a depression. What you have posted isn't just happening in Vermont but all over America. :frown1: It's a depression and it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better.:mad:
     
  3. jason_els

    jason_els <img border="0" src="/images/badges/gold_member.gi

    Joined:
    Dec 16, 2004
    Messages:
    10,576
    Likes Received:
    25
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Warwick, NY, USA
    Thanks NJ. I'm sorry. I just couldn't read your thread because I couldn't handle it. When those stupid dog rescue ads come on TV I get all :raincloud: and run and hug my dogs, asking them if they have a good life. I'm a bit of a softy.

    I think the media largely ignores things for three reasons. The first is that most media people live in urban areas where the effects of the economy are less noticeable. New York itself is doing quite well. Out of sight, out of mind.

    The second is that people simply do not like bad news. Bad news sells poorly when it's the media consumer who is doing badly. Perhaps more importantly, the last thing advertisers want are media outlets reminding consumers of how little money they should be spending. It's down to dollars as usual.

    The third reason is that the government itself is loathe to focus on the economic crisis because to do so would point the finger right back at themselves. No national energy policy, no or minimal healthcare for many, rising taxes, falling dollar, high imports, unfair trade policies, wasteful spending, restricted bankruptcy laws (just in time for the economic decline), legal predatory lending, deficit spending, declining educational standards, and a war we can't afford are not issues to raise too frequently in an election year. People just might get mad at all the politicians, not just the, "other," guys.
     
  4. Mem

    Mem
    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Messages:
    8,087
    Likes Received:
    8
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    FL
    It's very sad how the bad economy has effected these people. Very sad to hear that they have so much trouble staying warm in the winter.
     
  5. D_Fiona_Farvel

    D_Fiona_Farvel Account Disabled

    Joined:
    Nov 27, 2007
    Messages:
    3,790
    Likes Received:
    17
    Heartbreaking read.
     
  6. TurkeyWithaSunburn

    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Mar 23, 2005
    Messages:
    3,543
    Albums:
    5
    Likes Received:
    252
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Denver, Colorado
    Recession, when your neighbor loses his job.
    Depression, when you lose your job.
     
  7. Principessa

    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Nov 22, 2006
    Messages:
    19,494
    Likes Received:
    28
    Gender:
    Female
    QFT!!

    I've been waiting for Hoovervilles to start popping up ever since the real estate bubble burst over a year ago. I guess we will have to call the new tent cities Bush Burgs. :cool:
     
  8. TurkeyWithaSunburn

    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Mar 23, 2005
    Messages:
    3,543
    Albums:
    5
    Likes Received:
    252
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Denver, Colorado
    I heard that on CNN's special report about the mortgage crisis. Once I heard the recession/depression comment it was like lightning. DAMN it's true.
     
  9. Meniscus

    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Jul 1, 2007
    Messages:
    3,258
    Likes Received:
    28
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Western Mass.
    I grew up in the Berkshires and I still live in Western Massachusetts, which is more similar in culture and temperment to Vermont than to the rest of Mass. Financially, I'm getting by, but I worry about the future. I'm 37 and still renting an apartment because there's no way I can afford a mortgage. I put 10% of my income into a retirement plan, but there's no way that's going to be enough to pay for my retirement, especially if I don't own property by the time I retire. I haven't put anything into my savings account for several years.

    At least I only have to worry about myself. As for my friends who have children, I just don't know how they do it. I have one friend who is a single mom with 3 kids. Well, let's just say that my difficulties are nothing compared to hers. Right now she's facing eviction, and can't find another place to live.

    I keep thinking that I need to pick up and move, to go someplace with better opportunities. I'm not happy with my job anyway. But I don't know where to go and I don't know what I want to do.
     
  10. wellhung123

    wellhung123 New Member

    Joined:
    Feb 16, 2007
    Messages:
    82
    Albums:
    1
    Likes Received:
    0
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    New York City
    While I do feel bad for these people I have a few points to ponder:

    1) The only people who are going to write to Bernie Saunders are the sort of people who are in a bad situation. It stands to reason that Saunders is only going to publish the truly bad letters in order to make his point.

    2) The fact that some of the people live in Vermont and are struggling does not necessarily imply that everyone in Vermont is doing poorly. Is it evidence that that may be the case? Sure. But it's hardly definitive proof.

    3) I think the take home message here is that it's tough to work a menial job and be able to afford to live. This is isn't exactly news. Nor is it easy to raise kids on a meager salary. Low income may be due to where these people choose to live, choices they've made in life, etc.
     
  11. jason_els

    jason_els <img border="0" src="/images/badges/gold_member.gi

    Joined:
    Dec 16, 2004
    Messages:
    10,576
    Likes Received:
    25
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Warwick, NY, USA
    As to the first part, I'm not sure. Bernie gets written, and emailed even more, a LOT. Vermont talks to Bernie, per capita, more than any other state. Many, many people I know have seen or spoken to him because one senator for a little over half a million people isn't much. He also makes himself available. Vermont still has town meetings and participative democracy is still a big thing.

    The second part, certainly! Bernie's no dope, but as they say in Vermont, "Just because the man's a politician isn't reason to keep a good Socialist out of congress."
    Certainly not. However good-paying jobs are very difficult to find. My brother-in-law worked at the largest law firm in Vermont and made much less than you would imagine for a top lawyer at the top firm in the state. It was under $100k a year by quite a bit. My sister is a social worker for the state. They both have advanced degrees, one son, yet still can't afford a house and they don't live lavishly.

    The best-paying job in the state, if you're not a large business owner like Ben and Jerry, is being a full-time tenured professor with UVM. It's not an easy state to live in for anyone. Taxes are high and essential services are spread over very wide areas of low population. Low population densities raise the costs per capita for these services; particularly road maintenance, police, fire, EMS, and education.

    I see the state as the canary for the coal mine. There are no bait & switch nor padded budgets, and the population is pretty frugal. If a rural state that does things the right way can be feeling this kind of pinch, then what of others? If I didn't think Bernie's missive was accurate I wouldn't have posted it, but it's what I'm hearing from people all over the state. Most young people who don't farm or have a family business, have to leave Vermont to find jobs that will pay better. New York has had a similar brain drain for quite some time. That's expected because New York is a seriously fucked-up state, but I don't expect that with Vermont, a state whose economy has been growing, if very slowly, for quite a long time.
     
  12. Drifterwood

    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Jun 14, 2007
    Messages:
    15,724
    Likes Received:
    386
    Location:
    Fingringhoe (GB)
    I have been thinking about this thread a lot today Jason.

    I estimate that people where I live in the UK have lost nearly a month's salary because of the direct and indirect effects of the rise in oil prices. Whilst I think that the latter is a case of us shooting ourselves in the foot, and allowing traders to take us to the cleaners, which woud be an interesting thread in itself, there is a readjustment happenng in world economics.

    I have seen it for a long time, simply because it doesn't add up in a "globalised economy" that some people can have a better standard of livng on $1,000 dollars a year compared to people on $30,000. I'll say more if you are interested.

    I was quite shocked, perhaps naively, that one third of profit made in the world is held offshore and therefore is not subject to tax. Tax, that quite frankly, we need from our companies.

    I have been to Vermont btw, I thought the people were very fine, and I had an encounter with a Moose.
     
  13. jason_els

    jason_els <img border="0" src="/images/badges/gold_member.gi

    Joined:
    Dec 16, 2004
    Messages:
    10,576
    Likes Received:
    25
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Warwick, NY, USA
    The "little people" don't have offshore accounts.

    Please, be my guest. I'd love to hear your thoughts (really!).

    They're bigger than they look aren't they? (moose, not Vermonters)
     
  14. Drifterwood

    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Jun 14, 2007
    Messages:
    15,724
    Likes Received:
    386
    Location:
    Fingringhoe (GB)
    It's all about mobility. Capital and profit is more mobile than people. At the same time, those having a good standard of living on $1000 a year become subject to inflationary pressures, and those on $30,000 find that they are competing with those who can live on $1000. The bottom line is a convergence driven by globalisation, which for us means a reduction, or rather a deflation. Those selling to the $30,000 a year crowd, don't keep their profits in those countries and don't pay the tax that would properly feed back into that economy. At the same time they are fighting to pay as little for the production, thus maximising their offshore profit.

    However they are running out of cheap places, hence the inflation on prices, throw in a weak $, and dare I say managed increases in commodity prices, because they see the potential to make some $$$ out of this process and you have misery for the good people of Vermont who are wondering what the fuck is going on.
     
  15. Librarian

    Librarian New Member

    Joined:
    May 15, 2008
    Messages:
    15
    Albums:
    1
    Likes Received:
    0
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    New York NY
    Thanks for posting this, Jason. The idea of running out of heating oil during a Vermont winter is scary. I just hope that people don't focus on the price of oil and gasoline as the main problem. We need high oil and has prices to encourage conservation and use of alternative fuels. But obviously, everybody needs enough money to heat the house and drive to work and back. I think the answer is more progressive income taxation, and some help from the feds for people in need. The answer is not trying to make oil cheap again. That way could lead to another war or two.

    It's not the case in Vermont, but people in many other states who are struggling vote for right-wingers, and thus for tax breaks for the rich. Abortion, the notion that Democrats are elitists, fear of secularism, et al. seem to drive a lot of people more than economics does. Obama wasn't wrong with his "bitter" comments. Maybe this is starting to change. I hope so.
     
  16. azda

    azda Member

    Joined:
    Dec 14, 2007
    Messages:
    39
    Albums:
    1
    Likes Received:
    0
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Jersey City, NJ
    Wow, a lot in this thread, and it just gets more depressing as it goes on.

    First of all, I live in NYC, and it's not doing well. It's very heavily dependent on how Wall Street is doing, as you would imagine, and Wall Street is doing very badly. Yesterday the Dow dropped 400 points and the markets are way off their fairly recent highs; the Dow is 2000 points off it's 52-week high. My friend is an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, and he told me on Memorial Day that most of the people in his group were let go. While I don't feel bad for GS bankers, he was right when he said that many of these people went deeply into debt -- business school can cost $100K while you are earning no income -- these people are losing their jobs and in this market their banking careers are probably over because no one is hiring them. And then there was Bear Stearns. And when you read about companies letting people go by the 1000s, many of them are well-paying jobs for which the people will have a very hard time finding similar pay. Just saying.

    On the one hand, I'd like to take the opportunity to plug the incredible book The Working Poor Amazon.com: The Working Poor: Invisible in America: David K. Shipler: Booksbecause It's all about the plight of the poorest people in the US and how they are ignored and forgotten by an unforgiving system that is not able to aid people like them. It is about how the poor are invisible and ignored. The subtitle is "Invisible in America." He uses 3 main examples, and one of them is the poor in rural New Hampshire. Now I know NH and VT have different cultures and tax schemes, but their costs are pretty similar with the cold and all. A heartbreaking book.

    On the other hand, I've been saying for a few years now that energy prices were going to shoot up and hurt the economy and lots of people with it. And now it's happening. Oil is only going up, by the way. In the next 5 years it's probably going to double (and it could be a lot more than that). If you think $4 a gallon is bad, I'd start planning for $7 or $8. This is all very tragic, but foreseeable.
     
  17. azda

    azda Member

    Joined:
    Dec 14, 2007
    Messages:
    39
    Albums:
    1
    Likes Received:
    0
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Jersey City, NJ
    NJ, I don't live in California and some people here do, but in an article about the bad economy I read the other day, the author mentioned that the modern-day equivalents of Hoovervilles have started sprouting up in southern CA. So many people have lost their homes there that apparently they have officially turned large parking lots into tent cities so that the people trying to live there won't be harassed or kicked out by the police. They're already here.
     
  18. jason_els

    jason_els <img border="0" src="/images/badges/gold_member.gi

    Joined:
    Dec 16, 2004
    Messages:
    10,576
    Likes Received:
    25
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Warwick, NY, USA
    I completely disagree with you on the alleged need for high-priced gas. High gas prices hit the working rural poor and middle income earners far more than urban and suburban middle class and higher people. People in cities and suburbs usually have mass transit, rural areas do not. It's not practical. These people MUST drive and MUST heat their homes. They don't have alternatives.

    New York is still doing well compared to many other places. Foreign investment is propping-up the real estate market and tourist industries. Wall Street does have problems, but it's a big city with many other businesses to offset the downturn.

    Your friends will work again if they want to. These shake-outs happen every once in a while after a boom goes bust. Finding work in the meantime is the hard part.

    Thanks for the recommendation for the book. It looks very interesting.
     
  19. Rikter8

    Gold Member

    Joined:
    Jun 30, 2005
    Messages:
    4,488
    Albums:
    3
    Likes Received:
    51
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    MI
    If you think its bad now....

    Just wait for the food shortage this fall.

    I'd suggest everyone take heed, stock up on canned veggies, or grow your own and can for this years crop - if you can get anything due to the bee, or other beneficial flying insect shortage.

    If you have a wood burner, stock up on firewood NOW, so it may dry for this winter.

    Switch to spiral flourescent lights to conserve energy and lower your bill.
    Fill nooks and crannies with spray foam to cut draft.
    IF you have a basement, insulate the floor joist sill plate with batting or spray foam, and seal the sill!

    For your car:
    Smooth tread tires for highway use are better than aggressive tread for gas mileage.
    If you drive a SUV/Truck or older car with a clutch fan, switch to an electric fan that will save you up to 2-3 mpg.

    With the weakening dollar dropping every day, you may not be able to afford these things later this year.
     

    Attached Files:

    #19 Rikter8, Jun 8, 2008
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2008
  20. jason_els

    jason_els <img border="0" src="/images/badges/gold_member.gi

    Joined:
    Dec 16, 2004
    Messages:
    10,576
    Likes Received:
    25
    Gender:
    Male
    Location:
    Warwick, NY, USA
    Solid advice. Things are about to get ugly.
     
Draft saved Draft deleted