Numbers tell the story of an aging Vermont
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series looking at what the shrinking percentage of younger people in Vermont means to the future of the Green Mountain State.
ADDISON COUNTY — Here in Addison County we face the same demographic shifts as the rest of Vermont: a shrinking population of children under the age of 18 and an increase in older residents over the age of 65.
This shift puts a strain on the state’s economy, as more young people seeking out college and job opportunities elsewhere results in a smaller workforce, less tax revenue and less money for state programs that can help stimulate economic growth and care for those in need.
This trend is more pronounced in Addison County than in other places in the state. Between 2000 and 2017, Addison County saw a 31 percent drop in school age children, according to census data. Over that time period, the state of Vermont saw a 23 percent drop. Meanwhile, the number of seniors over 65 in Addison County climbed by 73 percent during that timespan. (See chart for the trend lines.)
The lack of children spells trouble for enrollment at local schools, which Gov. Phil Scott mentioned in his inaugural speech earlier this month. Fewer students likely will lead to fewer schools.
“In our public schools, we’re now educating about 30,000 fewer K-12 students than we were in 1997,” Scott said. “That’s an average loss of three students a day for over 20 years.”
This trend has already affected local school enrollment. The Addison Central School District, which encompasses Middlebury and six other surrounding towns, experienced a 22 percent drop in enrolled students between 2000 and 2017, according to district records. During that time, the Vergennes-area Addison Northwest School District experienced a 35 percent drop in enrollment.
The Mount Abraham Unified School District, which covers the Bristol area, did not have enrollment data available, but its 2018 annual report notes “declining enrollment” as well.
Sheila Soule, Addison Northwest superintendent, said that declining enrollment has forced schools to reduce staff in order to lower costs.
“Unfortunately this approach cannot continue as we are at a point where there are not more options for reductions without eliminating complete programs,” Soule said.
She also noted that while projections indicate that declining enrollment is going to level out soon, the district will still be several hundred students short of where it was.
“For the foreseeable future we will need to continue to reduce our budget by significant amounts,” Soule said.
While the student population dwindles, the number of senior citizens in the area has grown significantly. In addition to Addison County’s aging population of Baby Boomers, many older people choose to retire here. Some of these retirees move to EastView, a retirement facility in Middlebury that opened its doors in 2011.
EastView’s Director of Sales and Marketing Cari Burkard explained that while many of EastView’s 127 current residents moved in because they have a local connection, a lot of residents move from out of state. Less than half of current EastView residents spent their adult lives in Vermont, and only about a quarter did so in Addison County.
Burkard believes that Addison County is a destination for out-of-state retirees because of the proximity to both Middlebury College and nature.
“There’s a trend to retire to college towns,” Burkard said. “Middlebury is a great place to live. There’s so much going on but you have the small town feel. That’s attractive for people looking at retirement.”
Kristin Bolton, the assistant director at Elderly Services Inc. in Middlebury, echoed this assessment. Many of the elder population that her organization serves, Bolton said, also moved from out of state.
Elderly Services Inc. offers classes for retirees as well as an adult daycare for those who still live at home or with family but need somewhere to go during the day. Bolton said that while Addison County has a number of services for the elderly, there is a lack of affordable housing, transportation and doctors who specialize in elder care. Bolton expects these shortages to worsen as the number of elders continues to grow.
“As older folks need to transition to a smaller space, there are limited options for them,” Bolton said. “Another problem could be transportation for those elders who can’t drive. Addison County Transit Resources has not only the bus service but has volunteer drivers who can take people over 65 to appointments or shopping, but they are stretched thin already.”
A lack of affordable housing also presents a barrier for young people who may want to live here and start families. Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, believes that in order to bring more young people, towns should focus on adding both affordable housing and new jobs.
However, Lougee acknowledged that it is difficult to build population density without the proper infrastructure in place. Many towns and villages in Vermont do not have adequate water and wastewater systems to support new affordable housing units, which means that construction is additionally expensive.
“I really think we need to think about investments in our communities, and especially investments in our wastewater systems,” he said. “We largely do planning for growth in our community centers and investment in our community centers but without some dollars behind it it’s difficult.”
Lougee said that such investments might help bring in additional younger residents and curb the current shift in demographics toward an older population.
“Addison County’s growth projections for the future are relatively flat,” he said. “We will continue to age and that trend is going to keep taking place.”
Still, Lougee believes that if more affordable housing is made available, there are people of all ages who want to move to Vermont.
“You have to be a certain kind of person, you have to like winter,” he said. “But there are people who want to live here and we just need to find some more of them and give them reasons to come here.”
The next article in this series explores what colleges and universities are doing to encourage recent grads to settle in Vermont. Click here to read “Vermont tries to hold on to college grads.”
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