Editorial: State demographics signal ‘scary’ times for rural areas

Here are two seemingly contradictory numbers that represent the nut of Vermont’s economic challenge: In the past four years, Vermont’s workforce has shrunk by 8,700 workers, while the total employed has gone up slightly from 339,700 in 2014 from 338,400 in 2013.”
Now, wait a minute, you might think. How can the workforce be shrinking by that much and we have more total employment over the past two years? And if total employment is up, and unemployment is statistically at rock bottom (3.3 percent), what’s the big worry?
Let’s explain the numbers first: Total workforce means those eligible to work: that roughly calibrates to those 18- to 65-year-olds (give or take a few years) who are eligible and capable of working if they want to. The number represents demographics (the make-up of the state’s population), as opposed to how many folks are actually employed.
During the Great Recession of 2007-2011, household income across the nation took a hit. People lost their jobs or sustained cuts in pay. In response, says Mathew Barewicz, chief of economic & labor market information in Vermont, some spouses jumped into the labor force to supplement household incomes with jobs of any sort. Now that the recession is over and many incomes have recovered, some of those Vermonters who were coerced into the labor market have opted to ease back out of the workforce and return to their normal lives.
Barewicz also noted two other reasons the workforce has contracted:
1) Vermont has an aging population and many baby boomers are starting to retire; 2) labor force participation rates of young people have been declining over recent years. “This point, like the first two,” Barewicz said, “is part of a broader national trend also experienced here in Vermont. Young people have been entering post-secondary education at a higher rate and as a result fewer are entering the labor force.”
But let’s add another demographic statistic that in many ways is more alarming: Vermont is an aging state, and Addison County is aging right along with it. Over the next two decades, from 2010 to 2030, Addison County’s current trend indicates that residents 70 and over are expected to double from 3,399 to 8,430, while young adults 20-49 are expected to drop 11 percent, from 13,998 to 12,459.
That needle is moving in the wrong direction for one overarching reasons: employers depend on a strong number of capable younger workers to provide the manpower to sustain and grow their businesses. Without a stable and growing number of potential employees, businesses are restrained in their ability to grow — and that leads to a contracting economy that stagnates then usually shrinks. It’s a statistic that prompted Addison County Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Adam Lougee to note in an Addison Independentstory last Thursday, that the aging demographics statewide and in this county “were pretty scary.”
So, we’ve been forewarned. What are we going to do about it?
In a speech last November, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack noted a similar problem with rural communities across the nation and suggested a proactive response: “This is one more reminder that we need a national commitment to create new opportunities in rural America that keep folks in small towns and reignite economic growth across the nation.”
Sounds great, but don’t count on this Congress to make it happen.
Perhaps, Vermont could show the way.
What if, for example, Vermont applied the principles of the current use program (which are used to subsidize farming and an open land policy) and extended it to rural country stores, or a town’s last remaining service station, or even a threatened movie theater or hardware store, or a small hospital in Stowe, Randolph or even a town as large as Middlebury? Each is critical to the quality of life in rural Vermont and each would diminish the whole if it were lost. The idea parallels current use policies that benefit Vermont farmers for similarly good reasons.
The politics and cost of such proposals are, of course, tricky. Urban centers (which have growth and wealth) would necessarily subsidize rural areas. And subsidies, almost by definition, require spending, which requires taxation.
But if the rural way of life is to be maintained, one corollary might be that subsidies should help provide the most basic of necessities within a reasonable proximity — a place to buy fuel for transportation, or be part of a transportation network; a place to buy basic groceries and hardware; a medical facility for emergency care and pharmaceuticals; communication links and networks.
We’ll refrain from suggesting a statewide growth commission focused on sustaining Vermont’s rural way of life, but it’s a darn good focus for the existing regional planning commissions — if only some department within the state would take their input to heart and act on it. Otherwise, it’s wasted political theater in an era of too many promises and not enough cash.
Angelo S. Lynn

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