The United States is in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Millions of Americans continue to lose their jobs, homes, life savings and ability to send their children to college.
Since December of 2007, more than 7 million Americans have lost their jobs; a staggering 17.3 percent of the American workforce is either unemployed or under-employed; and over 6 million Americans have been out of work for more than six months, the highest on record.
In America today we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income in the industrialized world. With the top 1 percent earning more income than the bottom 50 percent, we have the highest rate of childhood poverty among major countries. About a quarter of our children are dependent on food stamps. Today, as the middle class continues its decline, one in nine families can’t make the minimum payment on their credit cards, and 120,000 Americans are declaring bankruptcy every month.
Sadly, this economic pain didn’t begin when the financial sector nearly collapsed over a year ago. It has been going on for a decade. As the Washington Post reported in January, "The past decade was the worst for the U.S. economy in modern times … It was, according to a wide range of data, a lost decade for American workers … There has been zero net job creation since December 1999 … Middle-income households made less in 2008, when adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1999–and the number is sure to have declined further during a difficult 2009."
Last September, USA Today reported that, "The incomes of the young and middle-aged–especially men–have fallen off a cliff since 2000, leaving many age groups poorer than they were even in the 1970s."
In order to strengthen and expand the collapsing middle class during these very difficult economic times, President Obama and Congress need to stand up to the big money interests and take bold steps to protect working families. Among many other initiatives:
We need to fundamentally change the way Wall Street does business so that it invests in the job-creating productive economy instead of engaging in the casino-style risk-taking that led to the largest taxpayer bailout in U.S. history. Financial institutions that are "too-big-to-fail" need to be broken up so they no longer pose a threat to the entire economy. And we need to establish a national usury law to stop banks from ripping off the middle class by charging outrageous interest rates and exorbitant fees on credit cards.
We need to create millions of good jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure through major investments in roads, bridges, dams, culverts, schools and sewers.
We need to transform our energy system and break our dependency on foreign oil by investing in energy efficiency and such renewable energy technologies as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. Making these investments will lead not only to the creation of decent-paying green jobs, save money on energy bills, and cut greenhouse gas emissions, but also will improve our geo-political position and keep us out of wars fought for oil.
We need to fundamentally rewrite our trade policy in order to rebuild our industrial base. Today, the U.S. employs fewer manufacturing workers than in April 1941, eight months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. This has got to change. No nation can maintain a strong economy if it is dependent upon other countries for the products it consumes.
We need to join the rest of the industrialized world and make healthcare a right of citizenship for every man, woman and child in this country through a Medicare-for-all single-payer program. It is unacceptable that more than 46 million Americans are uninsured and 45,000 die each year because they don’t get to a doctor in time.
Unfortunately, if we are to do any of these things we have got to end the Republican filibuster in the U.S. Senate, which has forced Democrats to get 60 votes to pass any legislation.
Enough is enough. When the Republicans controlled the Senate and George W. Bush was in the White House, they were able to pass two major tax breaks for the wealthy with only 58 votes in 2001 and only 51 votes in 2003 through a process called reconciliation. Simply put, reconciliation allows the Senate to pass legislation with a simple 51-vote majority instead of a 60-vote super majority.
It’s time for the Democrats to use these same reconciliation rules–which the Republicans used to benefit the wealthy–to rebuild the middle class.
Bernie Sanders is the junior United States Senator from Vermont. He has served in Congress – formerly in the House of Representatives – for over 16 years. Read more at his Web site.