BETHLEHEM, Pennsylvania — Bernie Sanders grew up in a three and a half room, rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn. His father, a paint salesman, "worked hard his entire life, but never made much money." In the 1970s, as a young candidate in Vermont, he borrowed gas money from friends to campaign in his Volkswagen bug. The windshield wipers didn't work. He struggled to pay bills. In 1981, after his inauguration as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he bought his first suit.
Decades later, as a two-time presidential candidate and celebrity, he talks often about his years living "paycheck to paycheck." Unlike Donald Trump, he says, "I know what that is about."
Now tax returns from the last 10 years, released for the first time by his campaign aides on Monday, show how much Sanders has risen, and profited, from national politics in the three years since an improbable presidential campaign made him one of the most popular politicians in the United States.
According to copies of the returns, Sanders earned more than $2.7 million from 2016 through 2018 — an income that puts him among the ranks of the "millionaires and billionaires" he has railed against for years.
“These tax returns show that our family has been fortunate," Sanders said in a statement on Monday. "I am very grateful for that, as I grew up in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck and I know the stress of economic insecurity. That is why I strive every day to ensure every American has the basic necessities of life, including a livable wage, decent housing, health care and retirement security. I consider paying more in taxes as my income rose to be both an obligation and an investment in our country.”
Outside his annual salary from the US Senate, book contracts and sales account for Sanders' primary source of income. His returns also show more than $106,000 in income for a forthcoming book by Sanders’ wife, Jane Sanders. The book will be published by St. Martin’s Press, an aide said.
According to his campaign, the Sanders family donated 3.4% of their 2018 adjusted gross income to charities that benefit senior centers, low-income organizations, educational entities, and environmental and housing advocacy groups.
In 2018, Sanders’ adjusted gross income was $561,293. He paid a 26% effective tax rate.
Sanders made the release at the tail end of a four-day, five-state tour through the Midwest, where his campaign is working to sway Rust Belt voters away from Trump. At a series of rallies and small town halls over the weekend, the senator cast the president as a false messenger on trade policy — "for once in your life,” he said at a rally in Michigan this weekend, “keep your campaign promises” — and spoke about his own working-class roots.
Sanders has resisted questions about his tax returns since his 2016 campaign, even as he criticized Trump for withholding his own from the public. (During that race, he released just his 2014 returns, which showed a family income of about $205,000.)
On the trail and in interviews with the press, the senator bristles at questions about his personal income and wealth.
On Friday in Gary, Indiana, after touring a downtown left empty by a faltering steel industry, Sanders volunteered to take questions from the press during a meeting with community leaders. "You're a millionaire yourself now," a Daily Mail reporter noted. "Does that conflict with the message that you're pushing here today?"
"I don't think so," Sanders replied from the front of the room.
"I didn't know that it was a crime to write a good book. My view has always been that we need a progressive tax system, which demands that the wealthiest people in this country finally start sharing their fair share in taxes. If I make a lot of money, you make a lot of money."
"I don't apologize for writing a book that was No. 3 on the New York Times best-seller, translated into five or six languages..."
"How's that?" Sanders said as the audience laughed. "And by the way ... this bothers me a little bit. Maybe we might want to talk about Gary, Indiana."
The subject was also at the heart of a recent public rift between the Sanders campaign and a prominent Washington-based liberal think, the Center for American Progress, whose political arm funds a left-leaning news outlet, ThinkProgress. (ThinkProgress is editorially independent, according to its leadership.) After the site published a critical story and video about Sanders' wealth, Sanders accused the Center for American Progress of sponsoring a "smear" campaign against progressive presidential candidates, as first reported by the New York Times.
“This counterproductive negative campaigning needs to stop,” Sanders wrote in a letter to the group's board. "The Democratic primary must be a campaign of ideas, not of bad-faith smears. Please help play a constructive role in the effort to defeat Donald Trump.”
Although Sanders' income puts him in the top tier of American earners, the returns were, in fact, largely what you'd expect from a 77-year-old politician and his wife of some 30 years — bucking weeks of speculation among skeptical Democrats, including former Clinton aides, that Sanders was squirrelly about the release because it would reveal nefarious activity by him or his wife in the years since his campaign made Sanders one of the most popular names in US politics.
The tax returns show that Jane Sanders made no income from the nonprofit she founded after the 2016 campaign, the Sanders Institute. (The policy-focused think tank is scheduled to shut down sometime in May in an effort to avoid potential conflicts of interest.)
The Sanders family appeared to profit from a “small antiques business” in 2012 and 2013, according to the returns. A campaign aide did not respond to a request for more information about the business.
“Not being a billionaire, not having investments in Saudi Arabia, wherever he has investments," Sanders said last week in a reference to the president, "mine will be a little bit more boring."