Editorial: Vermont’s sales pitch may be misguided

  • Gov. Phil Scott delivers his inaugural address to a joint assembly of the legislature in Montpelier, Vt., Thursday, Jan. 10. 2019. (Jeb Wallace-Brodeur/The Times Argus via AP)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Want to move to Vermont? The state will welcome you not only with open arms but also an open wallet.

As of Jan. 1, the state began accepting applications for its new remote-worker program, under which people who work remotely for out-of-state companies will get $10,000 to move to Vermont. The money will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis until a one-time $500,000 appropriation made by the Legislature is exhausted. To qualify, applicants must be a full-time employee of an out-of-state company and be able to perform most of their duties remotely from a home office or from a co-working space in Vermont.

Gov. Phil Scott, thrilled by the international buzz generated when the remote-worker program was announced last summer, now wants to expand it by paying out-of-staters $5,000 to move to Vermont and take a job, any job. With a state unemployment rate of 2.8 percent, there are many of them available.

And if you are an entrepreneurial type, the Woodstock Economic Development Commission is offering commercial rent subsidies to open retail outlets or restaurants in the town’s central village district.

The backdrop for offering these incentives is the well-documented challenge posed by the state’s rapidly aging population and declining worker-age cohort. Vermont has the nation’s third-highest median age at 42.7 years, according to census figures. Scott’s office says that there are now 23,000 fewer Vermonters under the age of 20 than in 2000 and nearly 30,000 more over the age of 65.

Despite the incentives on offer, attracting lots of newcomers might prove to be a tough sell. For one thing, out-of-staters could well wonder why, if Vermont is such a great place to live and work, it has to pay people to move there. Plus, geographic mobility among Americans is at or near an all-time low. (When the Census Bureau began tracking migration in 1948, about 20 percent of the population moved within the year; in 2015-2016, just 11.2 percent did.) And then there’s the climate, which is harsh by the standards of many who live in warmer places.

More than that, native Vermonters as well as some of those who moved to the state on their own initiative might reasonably resent the taxpayers’ largesse being lavished on people from distant places.

So here’s a modest proposal: Let’s cut out the middleman in this population transaction. Why not take the available money and make grants to Vermont couples with one or fewer children who are willing to have a baby, or have another? The state could put the money in individual investment accounts managed by the state treasurer. When the child reaches age 21, if still a resident of Vermont, there would be a nest egg to collect that could be used as a down-payment on a house or to pay down student-loan debt or any other demonstrably worthy endeavor.

Admittedly, this smacks of government intrusion into highly personal decisions, and we are also well aware that Japan’s finance minister recently ran into a hornet’s nest by suggesting that the country’s childless couples were to blame for its aging-demographic woes.

So if not baby steps, then what? Well, the state could invest heavily in developing more affordable housing; providing cheaper, high-quality child care; fostering job training opportunities; and bolstering state aid for higher education to help curb student-loan debt — in other words, do the things that help young families thrive and prosper. That’s a story that could sell itself anywhere.