Bernie Sanders, the Independent US Senator from Vermont, spoke at a gathering of progressive activists in the ballroom of AFSCME District Council 1199C on Thursday, July 24, 2014.
“We are living in a moment in history,” Sanders began, “in which our great country faces more challenges than at any time since the Great Depression. If you throw in the rather huge issue of climate change, and the kind of planet we’re going to leave to our children and our grandchildren, it may well be that at this moment we, and people all over the world, are facing more challenges than has been the case for a very long time.
“In America today, economically,” Sanders added, “the great middle class of this country, which was once the envy of the world, is disappearing. When you pick up the newspapers, they tell you the unemployment is 6.2 percent. Don’t believe it, because you can ascertain and determine unemployment in a number of ways. If you throw into the statistics, as you should, people who have given up looking for work, people, increasingly, who are working twenty or thirty hours a week who need to work forty hours a week, real unemployment in this country is close to twelve percent.”
Of employment statistics for youth, Sanders added, “When you look at young people, youth unemployment is close to twenty percent, youth unemployment for African-American kids is close to forty percent. Today in America, when we talk about young people, the future of our country, every one of us, and everyone of our fellow Americans, should be humiliated by the fact that in this country today, we have the highest rate, by far, of childhood poverty, which is now near twenty-two percent.
“When you have so many kids in poverty,” Sanders continued, “what ends up happening is that we end up having more people in jail than in any other country on earth, including China. So we have a system, where kids are born into poverty, where kids are not educated, where kids drop out of school, where kids hang out on street corners, whether it’s Philadelphia or Burlington, Vermont, and we’re shocked when they’re doing drugs or other self-destructive activities, and then we send them to jail at fifty thousand dollars or more a shot. I think we can do a little bit better than that.”
About health care, Sanders said, “Health care must be considered a human right. I hope all of you understand is that basic principle, that whether you’re poor or whether you’re rich, whether you’re old or whether you’re young, you can get sick, and you need to go to a doctor, and you should be able to get the best quality health care the system can offer, regardless of your income.” In spite of “the modest gains” of the Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”), Sanders said, “we now have forty million people who have no health insurance, and we have more people than that who have high premiums and high deductibles.” A recent study from Harvard, Sanders said, showed “we lose forty-five thousand people a year because they don’t have insurance, or they have high deductibles and co-payments, and they don’t go to the doctor when they should.” The time, added Sanders, “is long overdue for this country to do what every major country on earth does, and guarantee health care for all people as a right.” The best way to do that, said Sanders, is through “ a Medicare-for-all, single payer program.”
In the current free-market health care system, said Sanders, “as a nation, we spend far more per capita on health care than do the people of any other nation, and yet our health care outcomes, in terms of life expectancy, how long we live, infant mortality, and how we treat a number of diseases, lags behind (those of ) other countries. We don’t have enough primary care doctors, we don’t have enough nurses, we don’t have enough dentists, because the function of this health care system is not to provide quality care to all people, it is to make as much money as possible for the private insurance companies, for the drug companies, and for the medical equipment suppliers, and that has got to change.”
One of the issues that needs to be discussed, said Sanders, is “creating an economy that works for all of the people, and not just for the people on top.” Sanders recalled a time when college courses on “what we would do with all of the leisure time that we had because automation was going to reduce” work times; “The theory was that with robotics and automation, people would not have to work forty hours a week, they would work twenty hours a week, and what would the American people do with all that free time?
“Well they don’t teach that course anymore,” Sanders added, “the courses they now teach are on how people deal with the extraordinary stress that they are under.” As chair of a sub-committee on health care, “we did a hearing entitled, ‘Poverty As A death Sentence.’” The point of the hearings, said Sanders, was “people on top (financially) live substantially longer and healthier lives than people down below, working people and low-income people. Yes, it has a lot to do with access to good health care,” but also, “it has to do with the stress of trying to survive day after day when you don’t know how you’re going to feed your kids, and you don’t know how you’re going to put gas in the car to get to work, and you understand that if your old car breaks down, and if you don’t get to work you get fired, and you don’t know what happens then.
“People in this country are living under enormous stress,” Sanders added, “because of economic uncertainty, not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow, not knowing whether they’re going to have their job tomorrow, or whether their job is going to China.” The American people, Sanders said, “are pretty angry. Unfortunately, a lot of them are angry for the wrong reasons, and they’re angry against the wrong people.
“They should be angry,” Sanders continued, “that despite a revolution in technology, which was supposed to lower the workweek, you have millions of people working longer hours for low wages…They’re not working one job, they’re working two jobs, they’re working three jobs, trying to cobble together income. They’re working fifty, sixty, seventy hours a week.” Noting that American workers get less vacation time than workers in other countries, Sanders added, “when people do have vacation time, they don’t take it, because they’re afraid that if they do take it, their job may not be there when they come back.” People are angry, he continued, “because they see an increase in productivity and they see, in many cases, their incomes going down.”
Since 2001, Sanders continued, “we have lost over sixty thousand factories, and millions of good-paying jobs.” The cause, he said, “has everything in the world to do with the disastrous set of trade policies supported by Republicans and Democrats.” Many in the trade union movement “knew exactly what was happening way back when they were negotiating NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) and permanent normal trade relations with China. This is what corporate America wanted, they wanted the opportunity to shut down America, go abroad, pay people pennies an hour, and bring those products back into America. We have lost a significant part of our manufacturing base (and) millions of decent-paying jobs. My message to American manufacturers is, if they want us to purchase their products…they damn well better start manufacturing these products in America.”