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Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, reacts to a fist-waving supporter as he speaks at a campaign rally. Image Credit: AP

My father came to this country [the United States] from Poland at the age of 17 with barely a nickel in his pocket. I spent my first 18 years, before I left home for college, in a three-and-a-half-room, rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn. My mother’s dream was to own her own home, but we never came close. My father’s salary as a paint salesman paid for basic necessities, but never much more.

As a young man, I learnt the impact that lack of money had on family life. Every major household purchase was accompanied by arguments between my parents.

I remember being yelled at for going to the wrong store for groceries and paying more than I should have. I’ve never forgotten the incredible stress of not having much money, a reality that millions of American families experience today.

America is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world and, according to President Donald Trump, the economy is “booming”. Yet, most Americans have little or no savings and live pay cheque to pay cheque.

We need to revitalise American democracy and create a government and economy that works for all.

- Bernie Sanders

Today, our rate of childhood poverty is among the highest in any developed country in the world, millions of workers are forced to work two or three jobs just to survive, hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, millions more owe outrageous levels of student debt, and half a million people are homeless on any given night. More than 80 million Americans have inadequate health insurance or spent part or all of last year without any insurance, and one out of five cannot afford the prescription drugs they need.

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While wages in the US have been stagnant for more than 40 years, we have more income and wealth inequality than at any time since the 1920s.

Starvation wages

Today, the wealthiest three families in the country own more wealth than the bottom half of the American people and the top 1 per cent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 per cent. Millions of workers earn starvation wages even as nearly half of all new income is going to the top 1 per cent.

Gentrification is ravaging working-class neighbourhoods, forcing many struggling Americans to spend half or more of their incomes to put a roof over their heads. The rent-controlled apartment I grew up in was small, but at least we could afford it.

I am running for president because we must defeat Trump. But, if we are to defeat Trump, we must do more than focus on his personality and reactionary policies.

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We must understand that unfettered capitalism and the greed of corporate America are destroying the moral and economic fabric of this country, deepening the very anxieties that Trump appealed to in 2016. The simple truth is that big-money interests are out of control and America needs a president who will stand up to them.

Wall Street, after driving the US into the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, now makes tens of billions in profits while forcing working-class Americans to pay usurious interest rates on their credit card debt. The top 10 American drug companies, repeatedly investigated for price fixing and other potentially illegal actions, made nearly $70 billion (Dh257.46 billion) in profits last year, even as Americans paid the most per capita among developed nations for their prescription medicine.

Top executives in the fossil fuel industry spend hundreds of millions on campaign contributions to elect candidates who represent the rich and the powerful, while denying the reality of climate change.

Major corporations like Amazon.com, Netflix, General Motors and dozens of others make huge profits, but don’t pay federal income taxes because of a rigged tax system they lobbied to create.

Back in 1944, in his State of the Union speech, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt reminded America that economic security is a human right and that people cannot be truly free if they have to struggle every day for their basic needs. I agree.

We must change the current culture of unfettered capitalism in which billionaires have control over our America’s economic and political life. We need to revitalise American democracy and create a government and economy that works for all.

Yes, the government should guarantee a decent paying job for all Americans and universal health care through a single-payer system. Yes, we should raise the minimum wage to a living wage of $15 an hour, make it easier for workers to join unions, provide free tuition to public colleges and substantially lower student debt. Yes, we should wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, reform a racist criminal justice system and enact comprehensive immigration reform with a path towards citizenship.

Call for a true democracy

As the working-class son of an immigrant, I know where I came from. My values as a candidate were shaped by the experiences of my youth — and by the realisation that many Americans face the same struggles today.

Conservatives dishonestly try to link the policies I favour with those of authoritarian regimes. But I am calling for a true democracy, one that abides by the principle of one person, one vote, and that doesn’t allow billionaires to buy elections.

FDR did it. We can do it again.

Bernie Sanders is a senator from Vermont and a Democratic candidate for president.