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What's So Bad About Vermont? 


Published April 22, 2008 at 9:04 p.m.

You've no doubt noticed how awful life is here in Vermont. Awful and getting worse, what with wages so low and prices so high - especially the sale price of a nice house, or the rent on a decent apartment.

You've noticed because the newspapers and the radio and television keep telling you. Across the political spectrum, important people keep proclaiming our woes, especially Gov. James Douglas, who has made "affordability," or lack thereof, the dominant theme of his tenure.

Then there are all these fancy reports concluding that Vermonters are in a terrible fix, barely able to survive after paying their bills or - increasingly - unable to pay their bills. These reports come from prestigious organizations. They are artfully bound and printed, and have well-designed graphs and full-color illustrations. They are chock-full of statistics. They have endnotes. Ergo, they must be true.

Or so seems to be the assessment of Vermont's news media, which transmit the conclusions of the reports, usually on the front page or at the start of the broadcast, as though they were unassailable truth.

They are not. They are politics.

This is not, inherently, a pejorative. Politics is the mechanism by which free people govern themselves. But the scholars who prepare these reports are not impartial. The reports are the products of interest groups that have agendas. Those agendas might be honorable, enlightened and public-spirited. But the wise citizen ought to be aware of political agendas and interpret reports with appropriate skepticism. So should a minimally competent journalist.

Consider the "livable wage" - the subject of reports regularly issued by the Livable Wage Campaign of the Peace & Justice Center in Burlington. According to the campaign, 26 percent of the state's full-time workers earn less than the livable wage for a single person. For single parents, the percentages are even higher.

That's a lot of people. But whatever else these people may be doing, they are . . . living. Not very well, perhaps, and many of them need public assistance, pointed out the Campaign's Colin Robinson. Still, they are living on less than the "livable wage."

Does this mean they shouldn't make more money? Not at all. It just means that, like "right to life" and "right to work," "livable wage" is more bumper-sticker slogan than meaningful concept.

Sometimes these reports are flat-out wrong. Contrary to what a few of them have recently told us, for example, Vermont's population is not decreasing. The state is not on track to have the largest concentration of old folks in the country. It is not the most heavily taxed state in the union.

But most of these reports are right about one thing: Life in Vermont is hard and getting harder. For most Vermonters, paychecks are not going up as fast as the cost of life's necessaries - food, housing, health care, transportation, education. There is an affordability problem in Vermont. And in Tennessee. In Oregon, Minnesota and Oklahoma, too, not to mention Wyoming, Kansas and New Jersey. For at least 30 years, the real incomes of all Americans who are not very rich have been rising minimally or not at all.

This is a national state of affairs. There is not a shred of convincing evidence that it is any worse here in Vermont. Even Colin Robinson acknowledged that he hasn't "seen any information to highlight Vermont being worse off or better off than other states."

But Vermonters seem to love wondering what we're doing wrong, and some try to use that inclination to their own benefit. Remember the recent accounts that Vermont's rural counties are losing residents? Wailing there was, and a gnashing of teeth. What to do? What to do?

How about calming down? Unless they have oil under them, rural counties from coast to coast are declining in population. As far as I could see, and I looked carefully, not a single Vermont news organization pointed that out. Nor did one consider the possibility that losing population might not be so bad.

Asked for evidence that Vermont is less affordable than other states, Jason Gibbs, the governor's spokesman, obliged with emailed links to several government and private studies about health care, taxes, housing, utility rates and the economy. The information was interesting and informative. It did indicate that some necessities cost more in Vermont than in much of the country. But not all of them, and these costs are usually not higher than elsewhere around our region.

The Northeast is generally more expensive than most of the rest of the country. It's old. It's cold. It's crowded. Its people believe in, and insist on, a fairly high level of public services. Nothing in the information Gibbs sent me provided a persuasive case - much less conclusive proof - that Vermont is unusually unaffordable because of anything the state government does or doesn't do.

In fact, the preponderance of the evidence - the statistics on economic growth, median income, poverty rates, health coverage and education levels - suggests that Vermont is one of the more prosperous and livable states.

So why do these reports keep harping on how awful things are here?

"In some ways it doesn't matter if it's worse in San Francisco than it is here," said John Fairbanks of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency. "What matters is that it's bad here. If you're a single mom and you're making $30,000 a year and your ex isn't doing so good with the child support, you have a problem finding decent housing."

So you do. But the evidence that your troubles are worse here than they would be in Atlanta or Topeka is, Fairbanks conceded, "anecdotal."

The housing crunch is the subject of the most recent of these reports, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," written by Fairbanks and issued last month by a consortium of business groups, civic organizations and state agencies. The housing predicament is real. But, again, it is nationwide. And it's not an accident. To the contrary, it was deliberately created by a significant shift in national policy. In 1981, the new Reagan administration "decimated" the federal housing effort, recalled Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition coordinator Erhard Mahnke, cutting some programs and eliminating others entirely.

"Deliberately" does not mean that the Reaganites wanted low-income people to suffer. It meant, as one of the administration's intellectuals told me at the time, that they wanted "to get government out of the way and let the market provide housing." It did. The market provided lots of expensive housing for upper-income people who can afford it. Another result, intended or not, was less (hence more expensive) housing for lower-income people. Like all privatization, this one redistributed benefits upward.

It is entirely possible that this redistribution hit Vermont particularly hard. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the gap between what Vermonters earn and how much they have to pay to rent a two-bedroom apartment is larger than it is in most other states.

But the problem here is less the high cost of a house or apartment than the low (for the Northeast) incomes. And that doesn't stem from anything the state does or doesn't do, either. Vermont incomes have always been low compared to the rest of the region. But as compared to the nation as a whole, Vermont's median household income has never been higher.

At least in the short run, there probably isn't much the state can do about the housing bind. Fairbanks and Mahnke agree that "more resources" are needed to improve the housing situation for lower-income Vermonters. That means more government money, probably more than this or any state can afford. Not much will be done about the housing dilemma of low- and middle-income people unless the federal government reverses the policies of the 1980s and restores the pre-Reagan levels of housing assistance.

That, however, is not the goal of some (by no means all) of the coalition that produced "Between a Rock and a Hard Place." Homebuilders, realtors and their financiers have a hidden agenda involving the decimation of some of Vermont's environmental laws and regulations that control sprawl development. Led by the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Vermont, these interests bought a full-page advertisement in the March 13 issue of The Burlington Free Press to assail the housing bill now before the Legislature.

Even though H.863 does relax some regulations - but selectively, and only in the middle of town - the builders oppose it. They don't want it to pass because passage would reduce pressure for the broader changes they really want. Their ad asserted that the bill "will negatively impact our housing supply and . . . drive up the cost of new housing."

Obviously, it would do no such thing.

Nowhere does the "Rock and Hard Place" report call for lowering environmental standards. But by dramatizing Vermont's housing problems without acknowledging that the situation is similar elsewhere, the report may unintentionally provide ammunition for the pro-decimation faction.

"There might be some folks who would like to use the affordable-housing crisis to roll back regulations much further," said Mahnke, choosing his words carefully. He works with those "folks."

It isn't that homebuilders are heartless knaves. But they are in business to make money. With sufficient subsidies (there are still some), they can make money building low-income housing. Some do. But they make much more building McMansions and luxury subdivisions. Some of them think sprawl is just fine; it's cheaper to build out in the country.

Homebuilders might have a legitimate argument that some of Vermont's regulations are too inflexible. But the claim that loosening those rules will increase the stock of low-income housing is pure conjecture, at best. The only certain beneficiaries of looser development regulations are developers. All the other states have regulations, too, and their developers complain about them with comparable ardor. I got an earful on the subject from one in Montana last summer.

Montana is not generally considered a heavily regulated state. And, indeed, it is cheaper to rent an apartment there. But it's also tougher to earn a living. Montana's median per-household income is about $7000 less than Vermont's.

We've got our troubles here. They are largely the same problems the residents of other states have. The argument to the contrary is a delusion, if not a lie, and Vermonters ought to find it - as Jim Douglas might say - unaffordable.

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Jon Margolis


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