BRATTLEBORO — Sen. Bernie Sanders was treated with a standing ovation Monday when he walked up to the gazebo on the Brattleboro Common.
About 500 people turned out to listen to Sanders talk about the challenges facing working people in the United States, including a lack of affordable health care, housing and child care.
He also talked about how legislation making its way through Congress is “finally addressing the existential threat” of global climate change.
“Every day we delay addressing this crisis ... is another day we create an unlivable and uninhabitable planet for future generations,” said Sanders. “We can’t allow that.”
In early August, the Senate passed by a vote of 69 to 30, a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. In late August, the House of Representatives, by a party-line vote of 220 to 212, advanced the infrastructure bill and also passed a $3.5 trillion budget resolution. The vote gives Democrats the ability to write and approve a massive spending package without Republicans and puts the Senate-passed infrastructure plan on a path to final passage in the House.
“We are putting hundreds of billions of dollars into combating climate change,” said Sanders.
Money will be committed to transforming the transportation system, how we produce electricity and how we grow food, said Sanders, as well as on weatherizing homes and buildings and investing in sustainable energy.
Sanders also said the bill hopes to harness the passion of millions of young people who are taking the lead on breaking the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.
“This bill puts tens of billions of dollars into creating a civilian climate corps,” he said, which will provide good paying jobs and educational benefits “to young people who get involved in helping to transform our energy system.”
While this bill doesn’t do everything that is needed, said Sanders, “This is the first piece of legislation I have seen that takes a hard look at the crisis we are facing ...”
In the past, said Sanders, budget negotiations have been about “nibbling around the edges,” adding or taking away percentage points to certain budget items.
“What we are trying is something very different,” he said. “I’m not here to tell you what we are doing now is in any way enough. What I am telling you is we are working on the most consequential pieces of legislation for working class people since the 1930s.”
Sanders also noted that while the middle class and working families are struggling to make ends meet, the wealthiest Americans are just getting wealthier.
“As we work on this legislation, the insurance companies and the drug companies and billionaire class are doing everything they can to defeat what we are doing or to make it less significant,” he said.
Big money interests are “working to deny black and brown citizens, young people and the disabled the right to vote,” said Sanders. “We have got our work cut out for us.”
Sanders also spoke about the economic challenges facing the country as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. He praised the American Rescue Plan Act for helping tens of millions of Americans weather the “worse crisis we have seen in our lifetimes.”
“Through ARPA, in a very significant way, we stood up and helped families in need,” he said. “ARPA ... was an emergency response to an emergency situation. Responding to an emergency is the right thing to do. But now is the time to take a hard look at the structural crises facing our country ... that have gone on decade after decade ...”
Sanders said inclusion of monthly $300 checks for every child in eligible families helped cut child poverty in half. Those $300 payments expire “unless we pass reconciliation and extend those payments for years to come.
“We are trying to use the reconciliation process to improve life for working families, for children, the sick and the poor,” said Sanders.
He reminded people that Republicans used reconciliation in 2017 to give “massive tax breaks to billionaires and large corporations” and to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act, though they failed with the latter.
Sanders also characterized the country’s health care system as “an unmitigated disaster,” which is designed to make “huge profits” for insurance and drug companies.
“Health care is a human right, not a privilege,” said Sanders, who reiterated his support for single-payer Medicare for all.
“I’m not here to tell you this bill is going to address the health care crisis the way it should,” he cautioned, though the budget bill makes more significant reforms to Medicare than any over the last 50 years, including dental care, hearing aids and eyeglasses.
He said the country’s child care system is “totally dysfunctional,” with not enough space for all the children, “disastrous” wages for child care workers, and parents forced to pay more than they can afford.
The budget will greatly expand child care, said Sanders and make pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds “universal and free.”
The bill also “begins the process” of getting paid family and medical leave to all Americans, said Sanders.
“Low-income women are giving birth and one week later have to go back to work,” he said. “That is not what a civil society should be about.”
The bill funnels more money into low-income housing and affordable housing “than any legislation in the history of the United States,” said Sanders.
He also reminded people that for years, he has advocated for making public colleges and universities tuition free and to cancel all student debt.
“That is my view,” he said. “That is not the view of the majority of the members of the (Democratic) caucus.”
Nonetheless, the budget bill pays for two years of community college and allows for those credits to be applied to a four-year degree from a college or university. The bill also “significantly increases” Pell grants to make higher education more affordable, he said.
He told people that it is easy to get overwhelmed and to feel despair over the state of the nation.
Standing together, with courage, said Sanders, is what it will take to fight “demagogues who are dividing us by color, where you were born or sexual orientation.”
If we stand together, he said, “Not only can we address the crises we face, we can move this country in a much more vibrant, democratic way, in which all of our people have standards of living and can enjoy long and prosperous lives.”
Sanders welcomed guest speakers to the stage, including Lily Charkey, a senior at Brattleboro Union High School, who talked about her generation’s passion to make change, and Becca Balint, the president pro tempore of the Vermont Senate.
Balint urged people to fight the “big lie” that the country faces an employment crisis because American workers are lazy.
“But we know that’s not true,” she said, because states that ended increased pandemic unemployment earlier have not seen workers returning to the workforce in droves.
“Why is that?” she asked. “We have a child care crisis. We have a housing crisis. People are worried about getting sick, bringing a sickness home. It makes sense a lot of people are hesitant to return to the workforce.”
She also noted that millions of Americans have retired over the past 18 months because “they looked around and said, I’m not going to be here much longer; I want to make this life count, make my work count ... there are so many reasons why we see millions of people out of work right now.”
She referenced journalist Heather Long who has concluded the nation is not experiencing an employment crisis, but rather “a great reassessment” of what works means.
“Is it any surprise that when workers are going through a deep emotional and psychological crisis they might want to take advantage of changing what they are doing for work?” she asked.
Legislators in Vermont and around the country are thinking carefully about the money they are getting from the federal government and how best it can be used to support working families and people seeking change in their lives.
Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, said while the federal government has stepped in with money for the state, “the likes we have not seen for generations,” more importantly, the pandemic showed what can be accomplished when people in a community care for each other.
“We showed up to make sure everyone felt welcome,” she said, but people could have more space to help their neighbors if they had affordable health care, could take advantage of a medical and family leave policy, and a progressive tax policy was in place.
Towards the end of the event, Sanders said if people want to see more change in the country, they have to vote for more progressive candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, as well as Mondaire Jones and Jamaal Bowman of New York.
He also urged people to make phone calls to reluctant members of Congress and support organizations that are fighting for progressive reforms in the country.