Chittenden Country dominance grows in Vermont census

Published: 8/13/2021 9:35:17 PM
Modified: 8/13/2021 9:35:27 PM

Chittenden County’s population grew 7.5% between 2010 and 2020, the most of any county in Vermont, according to newly released 2020 census data.

The new numbers, the first local-level results of the 2020 decennial census collection, form the basis of Vermont House and Senate seats — signaling that Chittenden County could be in for more representation in the Vermont legislature.

“There’s been virtually no growth in any part of the state outside of the Chittenden County area,” said Peter Nelson, professor of geography at Middlebury College.

Chittenden’s population growth was followed by Lamoille County, which grew 6%, and Franklin County, which grew 4.6%.

Grand Isle County also gained more people between 2010 and 2020 than it did between 2000 and 2010, one of the many signs of the influence of the Burlington region, said Michael Moser, coordinator of the Vermont State Data Center at the University of Vermont.

“The counties directly outside of Chittenden County are the ones that are growing the fastest because that growth is bleeding out into the other adjacent counties,” he said. “Essentially, people are commuting farther, looking for more affordable housing.”

Conversely, Rutland, Essex and Caledonia counties each lost population between the two census data collections.

Other counties reported slow or stagnating population growth, similar to Vermont as a whole. The state reported 2.8% growth from 2010 to 2020, compared to the national average of 7.4%.

Moser said that Vermont’s population increase was also buoyed by a smaller-than-average number of overseas residents.

In 2010, the Census reported 4,600 Vermonters living overseas. In the 2020 census, collected shortly after the start of the pandemic, only 426 Vermonters were living overseas, Moser said.

Other factors could have influenced the count, including an unprecedented digital census form, migration during the pandemic, former President Donald Trump’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the form and new privacy rules that change how data is shared with the public.

“We don’t know how the pandemic impacted this data,” Moser said.

The rural-urban divide

Speaking before the results were released, Nelson said he expected the Burlington metropolitan region to grow due to a long-term trend in urban vs. rural population changes.

This trend was reflected nationally, too. Metropolitan regions grew 9%, while the population living outside metropolitan or micropolitan regions shrank, the Census reported.

Nelson said the trend was driven in part by the growing opportunities and services found in urban areas that help them attract jobs and people. “As you pass more thresholds, growth can gain a certain amount of momentum,” he said.

He noted significant economic activity “clustered” in and around Burlington, including “massive employers” like the University of Vermont and its medical center.

“And that ribbon as you go from Burlington through South Burlington out towards Williston, there’s all kinds of development that’s begetting more development,” he said.

The reverse is also true. “As you lose things, you will lose population,” he said. “And that becomes a downward spiral.”

Nelson gave the example of a Subway franchise that needs about 7,000 people in the local region to stay afloat. When the population dips below that number, the restaurant closes, losing jobs that could keep people in the area.

But there’s a downside to population growth. In Chittenden County, the pandemic has exacerbated a yearslong trend of higher housing costs and a shortage of rental options, he said.

It’s hard to quantify how personal choice affects where people live in Vermont. Nelson said people coming to the state may find Chittenden County attractive because it has the amenities of a city but remains small and maintains access to natural areas.

In the 1970s, Vermont’s population went through a small boom as part of a “rural renaissance.” Although it occurred throughout the nation, northern New England experienced a particular uptick in migrants, including “countercultural folks,” he said.

Could the pandemic have led to another rural renaissance? Headlines throughout the past year have discussed early signs of new migrants.

But this census data, collected mostly in April 2020, was too soon into the pandemic to show those trends, Nelson said.

He’s working with cellphone data to see if he can find that out.

“What’s happened since summer of 2020 is anybody’s guess,” he said.

How seats are set

If all had gone well in 2020, the Vermont Legislative Apportionment Board would have finished its work by now, said board chair Tom Little.

The Census Bureau had originally scheduled this data release for spring 2021. But the pandemic pushed back data collection efforts, forcing the board to push its own work on redistricting with a new deadline in November.

Although the board is currently working to get the data into a usable format, it’s made some progress on understanding how the latest population changes could affect Vermont’s legislative seat distribution.

In Vermont, seats are allocated so that the population of each district is roughly even, targeting the state’s population divided by 150. Little said state analysts performed that calculation with 2019 data to get a look at what districts could be under- or over-represented.

Based on that analysis, Chittenden County looks likely to gain some House and Senate seats, along with a few seats in Lamoille and Franklin counties.

Little said the board plans an “iterative, trial-and-error process” of constructing a new map that provides as much equal representation as possible. The board also tries to avoid two-member districts that split towns in half.

“It’s something the law tells us to avoid, but the most important thing is equality in each district,” he said.

Data quality questions

Other data quality issues plagued the 2020 census. In Vermont, outreach efforts were shuttered or altered in response to the pandemic, and the door-to-door count had to be extended to give Census workers more time to check on households that didn’t complete the form.

The Census Bureau reported a higher-than-average percent of unanswered questions on completed forms. Nelson said that college closures early in the pandemic could have affected university town populations as well.

Another change affected not the numbers the Census Bureau received but the ones they published.

The bureau intentionally added noise to small datasets to protect individual privacy, a move that could lead the census to inaccurately report tiny Vermont towns and subpopulations.

“I work with a lot of people that study rural regions across the country, and none of us have come up with an answer to that question: Namely, how are we going to deal with differential privacy?” Nelson said.

Asked if analysts should leave out towns with a population below 1,000, he said, “in Vermont, there’s a lot of places that would be empty.”




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