Vermont faces a demographic challenge. Our population is stagnant and getting older. We have fewer school-age kids, which drives up the per-pupil cost. We have fewer young adults to invigorate the workforce and pay forward the costs of retirement and health care for older Vermonters.
That is true. But there’s a popular myth about why that’s true. Take it away, Ethan Allen Institute’s Rob Roper:
The fact of the matter is that Vermont’s progressive tax, regulatory, healthcare, land use, and energy policies are driving up the cost of living, and driving our young, educated workforce out of the state. Who wants to work or start a business or put down roots in a state that punishes success and whose guiding governing principle is to redistribute what you earn to someone else?
The assumption beneath the thickets of dogma: young people are fleeing Vermont. And that’s not true.
Here’s the truth. Young adults are highly mobile. Many of them do leave Vermont. However, an almost equal number move in. (More on this in a moment.)
So why do we have so many fewer people aged, say, zero to 35?
Because, for a long time now, Vermont has had very low birthrates. The average female Vermonter has about 1.5 children during her lifetime. Replacement level is 2.1. This has been true long enough that we are losing ground in the younger demographics.
That’s it. Not regulation or taxes or education costs or business climate or cost of living or Peter Shumlin’s nose. Simple and straightforward: not enough babies.
And now let’s see some actual figures, as opposed to conservative wishful thinking, on whether people are actually fleeing Vermont.
The Public Assets Institute has issued a report based on statistics from the Internal Revenue Service, which is providing some hugely relevant data based on where people are filing returns.
“The IRS has published data in gross numbers for years,” says PAI’s Paul Cillo. “It has only sorted it out by age and income in 2012 and 2013. We’ve never been able to look at income and age groups before. The results are counter to the conventional narrative.”
In 2013, about nine percent of Vermonters aged 26-34 left the state. That’s not great. But eight percent moved into Vermont. That’s a net loss of one percent. Not great, but not a crisis either. “The data suggests that young people are not fleeing the state,” Cillo notes.
(What this actually means: of all the young-adult Vermonters who filed tax returns in 2012, nine percent filed from a different state in 2013. But almost as many young adults did the opposite — filing elsewhere in 2012, and filing from Vermont in 2013.)
Here’s another unpleasant surprise for conservative dogmatists: the people most likely to leave Vermont are the poorest. We actually enjoyed a net in-migration among top earners. And that’s been true for some time. From the PAI report:
People at the lower and higher ends of the income scale—earning less than $25,000 or more than $200,000—are slightly more likely to move than those in the middle, who make between $50,000 and $200,000. But over the last 20 years (except 2012) the average income of people moving into Vermont has exceeded the average income of those moving out.
The overall conclusion, per PAI:
Since the early 1990s, migration data show, people have moved into and out of Vermont in comparable numbers. The state lost 508 filers in 2013. But over 10 years the loss has been small: less than 0.5 percent of filers.
Now, any single study is only part of the true picture. These figures don’t definitively “prove” anything. But they are clearly at odds with conservative braying about a mass exodus from Vermont.
And then we get back to birthrates. The IRS data shows that migration is not the cause of our growing demographic crisis. Our consistently low birthrate is left as the predominant culprit.
So how do with fix that? Not with tax cuts or Act 250 reform. We could take a page from Canada’s book and enact paid parental leave; that would allow professional women to have children without forfeiting earning power or jeopardizing their careers.
Or we could encourage immigration. As a whole, America’s birthrates are on the low side. Our population is growing, but that’s mostly because of immigration — legal and otherwise.
We do have a demographic crisis. But if we’re going to fix it, we need to know the real causes. Otherwise, our solutions are doomed to failure.
Postscript. George Plumb would strongly disagree with that paragraph. He is head of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population, which argues that Vermont’s optimum population is about 500,000 — lower than the current 625,000. His group suggests simply allowing current trends to continue until we lose another 125,000 or so people.
What he doesn’t mention is that such a Vermont would be chock full of old people. We would have more trouble with health care and education costs than we do now, and collections of income and sales taxes would decline. More people would qualify for property tax relief. Vermont’s budget would be strained in ways we can only imagine today.
I don’t know what Vermont’s optimum population is. But I have an idea what our optimum demographic spread is; and we need more youth to ensure our future.