Editorial: Twin States Fall Short When It Comes to Investing in Families

Saturday, June 02, 2018

With the Twin States aging in place rapidly, state governments in both Vermont and New Hampshire claim that attracting and retaining young people, especially families, is a high priority. Maybe so, but what they have not yet done is make the kind of investments needed to grow their brands.

On the other hand, consider Germany, a nation that faces a similar demographic challenge of replacing an aging workforce that is passing into retirement. As Bloomberg News reported recently, German birth rates are at their highest levels since the 1970s as a result of enlightened, family-friendly policies. Combined with robust immigration from Europe and the Middle East, the country is becoming well-positioned to remain competitive.

For decades, German fertility rates were among the world’s lowest, Bloomberg reports, but the trend was reversed when a series of laws was enacted to support families, including legislation that guaranteed day care for children as young as a year old. Combined with other benefits, Germany spends more than twice as much on families as on national defense.

By contrast, the efforts of Vermont and New Hampshire seem to have been largely promotional, trying to get the word out that they are swell places to live, work and raise a family. And when it comes to scenery, safety, employment, outdoor recreation and public schools, they undoubtedly are.

But neither state succeeded this year in enacting paid family leave, primarily because the two Republican governors — Phil Scott in Vermont and Chris Sununu in New Hampshire — opposed the measures. Scott also vetoed a bill that would have gradually raised the minimum wage in the state from $10.50 to $15 by 2024. The minimum wage in New Hampshire remains at $7.25, or $15,080 a year. This is not a matter of importance only for minimum-wage workers; an increase ripples through the economy, lifting other wages along with it.

In 2017, average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges in New Hampshire totaled $16,070, the highest in the nation. That tab just nosed out Vermont’s, which was cheaper by all of $30. Government funding per full-time student at New Hampshire and Vermont public colleges and universities was less than half the national average in 2015-2016, according to the College Board. And New Hampshire and Vermont are both in the top 10 in average student debt upon graduation.

Affordable housing is in short supply. Those attending a forum at Dartmouth College last month were told that in the Upper Valley alone, at least 5,000 more affordable housing units are needed (affordable being defined as requiring less than 30 percent of household income). That may seem surprising in a region in which institutions such as Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center employ many highly paid individuals, but wages in many other fields are relatively low. And as Andrew Winter, executive director of Twin Pines Housing Trust, pointed out, for the many people who work at low-paying or minimum wage jobs, most housing in the Upper Valley is simply out of reach.

The list goes on and on. Many families in the Twin States, for example, struggle to find reliable, affordable day care for their children. On average, licensed child care costs about 12 percent of median household income in both New Hampshire and Vermont, according to one advocacy organization.

Of course, many other factors also help determine where people want to live. Northern New England’s harsh winter climate is a deal-breaker for some, and young people may savor more entertainment and cultural opportunities than the region offers. But if Vermont and New Hampshire truly want to attract a younger population to keep their economies and civic life vibrant, it’s going to take prudent and targeted public investments in the kind of material support families require in these times.