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The Deeper Dig: Where migrating Vermonters are going — and why

2019-10-06

By Mike Dougherty and Erin Petenko as seen in vtdigger.org: https://vtdigger.org/2019/10/06/the-deeper-dig-where-migrating-vermonter...

Two bridges carry Interstate 91 over the Saxtons River and Route 121 in Westminster. Photo by Kristopher Radder/Brattleboro Reformer

The Deeper Dig is a weekly podcast from the VTDigger newsroom. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Vermont’s stagnating population has concerned residents and policymakers for years. Census data shows that from 2010 to 2018, 10,000 more people left Vermont than moved into the state. Vermont also has the second oldest population of any state, prompting worries about future declines.

But those population trends don’t affect regions of the state equally. Towns and cities in the Burlington area are growing, while populations are declining in more rural parts of the state, like the Northeast Kingdom and southern Vermont.

Data shows where these migrating Vermonters are going. But learning why is more complicated.

“People aren’t just driven out by economics,” said historian Jill Mudgett, who conducted the Vermont Roots Migration Survey with UVM geography professor Cheryl Morse in 2014. “The data that we found in our survey results documented varied reasons for leaving Vermont, or for staying in Vermont, or for maybe leaving and then coming back.”

Mudgett said respondents cited difficulty finding jobs, lack of diversity, and the state’s harsh climate among many reasons for leaving. Those who stayed said they were attached to the landscape, or they wanted to live in a smaller community.

“The scope and the scale of rurality and rural life is important to people and draws them back to Vermont,” she said.

Paul Costello, the director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, said that many residents are actively trying to improve their towns, even though their populations may be decreasing.

“Rural Vermont is not in collapse,” Costello said. “There’s lots of creative people who are working very hard and are doing a lot of really thoughtful work around the future of their communities in their economy.”

Costello said these trends are affecting rural areas across the nation — in some cases, much more harshly than in Vermont.

“If you cut a Vermont shape out of Southern Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, or most other western states, excluding the urban areas in those states, you’d actually look pretty darn good statistically in terms of youth, energy, creativity, economic activity, entrepreneurism,” he said. “We’re actually an innovative state, despite that challenge.”

On this week’s podcast, Mudgett and Costello describe what’s happening behind broader population trends. Vermonter Nate Hibler describes why he’s leaving the state later this year. And VTDigger’s Erin Petenko breaks down the numbers on where Vermonters are migrating.

[Podcast transcript]

From Vermont Digger, I’m Mike Dougherty. This is the Deeper Dig. This week: Vermonters are on the move. We’ve known for a while that the state’s population is stagnating. But new data we’ve compiled shows us exactly where Vermonters are going, whether they’re leaving the state or migrating within its borders. What’s harder to pin down is why.

Nate Hibler: Hey it’s Nate!

Hey, Nate, it’s Mike from VTDigger. How’s it going?

This is Nate Hibler. Nate wrote to us after we published a story on Vermonters migrating out of the state. He said it hit home because he was about to become one of those Vermonters.

Hibler: Yeah, I’ll give you a little background here…

Nate’s a tax attorney. He grew up in Saxtons River, went to Champlain College, worked in the insurance industry, went to Vermont Law School, and graduated last year.

Hibler: And that’s when I started searching for a legal job in Vermont. I wasn’t exclusively searching for a legal job, but that was sort of my main focus. So since about July of 2018, I’ve applied to about 45 different positions in Vermont and 80 positions overall, including some in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. I got about a dozen interviews, a couple of those were phone interviews. And from that, not a single offer.

I have four degrees overall — two of which are law degrees, one’s a tax law degree from Boston University, and I have a CPA license. And you know, this isn’t a woe is me story. I really just want what’s good for Vermont.

Nate said he still wants to find a job here. He knows Vermont. He’s a hiker. He loves the lifestyle here.

Hibler: I love the seasons. You know, I love winter, I love fall, I love spring and summer, and mud season and stick season. We get two bonus seasons here.

But as it stands now, he’s taking a job in Boston, and moving his family there this fall.

Hibler: You know, my wife is a pediatrician. It’s not like we’re we’re dying here. We’re not starving. But every person needs a purpose, something to go to work and enjoy and be passionate about and kind of have, you know, another personal purpose in life to pursue. And I’ve been really disappointed that I haven’t been able to find that in Vermont now.

Erin Petenko: Politicians’ fears are true that more people are leaving the state than coming into the state from other areas of the country.

Our data reporter Erin Petenko has been looking at the numbers.

Petenko: That’s a pretty long-term trend. I looked at data all the way back from 2011 to 2016. And Vermont has lost thousands of people during that time period, especially to domestic migration, people leaving the state for other states, rather than coming into Vermont from elsewhere in the country.

And when we talk about people leaving, is it a predominant group of people? Like, what class of Vermonters are we talking about here?

Petenko: Yeah, so I know a lot of politicians like to complain about wealthy people leaving the state and taking their wealth with them. But the reality is that the average person leaving the state is like a middle class or lower class person who is leaving, you know, maybe for a job opportunity, maybe because they are looking for a cheaper place to live, maybe for a variety of reasons. But the data shows that on average, the people leaving the state are more poor than the people coming into the state. There are a small number of wealthier people coming in, it’s not enough to offset the loss that Vermont has had from middle and lower class people. That’s why Vermont has lost more people than it’s gained.

What are the implications of all this? Once we’ve kind of established that that’s what’s happening, how does it seem like policymakers might try to respond to trends like that?

Petenko: I talked to Senator Randy Brock, who mentioned that taxes and the cost of living could be a major issue for those Vermonters leaving. And the governor, Scott, also said that affordability of Vermont was a top line conclusion from the research that I’ve looked at and that his government looked at.

Gov. Phil Scott: Anecdotally, I know a number of folks that I’ve been close to that have moved away from the state. Blue collar workers, those with low and moderate incomes, that have decided to move away from Vermont.

Petenko: The high cost of living, whether that’s taxes, housing, food, heating costs, all of that could be an issue that politicians could look at.

Who else did you talk to to get a sense of some of the reasons behind this? I know with the numbers, it’s hard to get the full story of what’s actually behind some of these moves.

Petenko: Yeah, yeah. So I talked to two researchers, Cheryl Morse, and Jill Mudgett about their research into why people have decided to leave Vermont and why people have decided to stay in Vermont, in cases where they did. I thought that was pretty interesting. What Morse and Mudgett said is, there isn’t one overarching reason people cited when they said, that’s why I’m leaving Vermont.

Mudgett: People aren’t just driven out by economics. So that’s kind of the common wisdom that you hear in the Vermont news, or just people on the street, saying that Vermont is too expensive, and taxes are too high, or whatever it may be. And that did show up somewhat in the survey results. And I certainly don’t want to discredit the concerns of working class Vermonters. But the data that we found in our survey results documented varied reasons for leaving Vermont, or for staying in Vermont, or for maybe leaving and then coming back.

Petenko: Some mentioned jobs, some mentioned cost of living, but they also mentioned things like they wanted a more diverse community, or they wanted, you know, an urban experience.

Mudgett: They say, I was just born a city person. And I’m just meant to live in Manhattan. And if that’s you, and you’re kind of meant to be a Manhattan dweller, Burlington is just not going to cut it for you.

Petenko: Some of them said they were afraid of the weather in Vermont.

Mudgett: People leave because they don’t like the climate, or they leave because it’s too rural, or they think it’s too boring. Or they leave because they want more cultural opportunities. Or they would like more racial diversity, which is a big one. Or, you know, some people said that they, you know, had married a person of color, and they just didn’t feel like Vermont was going to provide them the kind of adult life that they were looking for, or for their children, for example. So people leave for all kinds of reasons.

Petenko: On the other hand, among people who decided to stay, there was one big reason they mentioned in why they chose Vermont, or chose to stay in Vermont, which is that they love the landscape. They feel an attachment to the landscape and the geography. They also mentioned a lot of cases that they love the community of Vermont, they love the social and community atmosphere. And many of them also mentioned their family, they wanted to stay with their family.

Mudgett: People come home for all kinds of reasons — they come home because their parents are elderly and need their help, they come home, because they’re just homesick. They come home because maybe they decided they do actually like the snow and they miss skiing. I mean, they come home because the small town feel of Vermont, it’s harder to find in other places. You know, so, one survey participant in particular said that he was from Montpelier, and he loved coming home to visit his family because he could go to the post office, and he felt like he could see six people he knew at the post office, and he hadn’t had that experience anyplace else. So that factors in as well, kind of the scale, the scope and the scale of rurality and rural life is important to people and draws them back to Vermont.

It sounds like given what that research shows, what the numbers show, all we really know in the end is that these trends are happening. But there’s really no one specific reason why.

Petenko: Yeah, and that makes it really hard to deal with these issues. You know, it’s not enough to just lower taxes, you know, from what it looks like. Because even then, you know, you have to also deal with jobs and other cost of living issues, and the fact that it’s a really rural state, and people are often moving to urban areas,

Or some people, the fact that it’s a rural state is exactly what they like about it.

Petenko: That’s true. That’s true. And I mean, I think there will always be that appeal to a certain segment of the population living elsewhere, you know, the dream of being able to live close to nature. I mean, guess what, I just moved to this state, and I really loved coming up here and seeing the natural beauty. And it was a little bit of the reason why I said yes to the job. I think it’s a dream for a lot of people, but making that dream a reality, you need to have, you know, some realistic way of finding a job opportunity or finding a way to live in this state. And there are practical concerns for people coming in, in dealing with those problems.

You looked at exactly where people are coming from and where they’re going. What are the big takeaways there?

Petenko: All right. So maybe I should start with this. This problem is not exclusive to Vermont, Vermont is losing population, but also New Hampshire is losing population, a lot of areas in the Northeast, are losing population to other places in the country. And the number one place for Vermont, and for many other places, is Florida, people are moving to Florida.

I can’t say for certain that it’s retirees based on the data that I looked at. It’s definitely the stereotype. I also saw research that suggests that people moving into Florida are wealthier than the people moving out of Florida. But I can’t say that, you know, for certain where they’re going or whether they’re going to Vermont. Besides Florida, some of the top places we lost people to, New Hampshire we’re net losing people, Maine, the Southeast, the West Coast, so California, Oregon, a little bit Colorado. On the other hand, where we’re gaining from was kind of a bit of a surprise for me, that people are actually coming from Massachusetts, more than they’re leaving from Massachusetts. And I’ve heard the opposite story from a couple other people. We’re gaining a lot of people from New York, and we’re gaining some people from New Jersey and Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

You’ve also been looking at data on where people are moving within the state. What have you found?

Petenko: So on the whole, Chittenden County gained population far more than anywhere else in the state. Burlington gained a lot of population, but also the areas around it, like South Burlington and Essex Junction. Elsewhere in the state, it was mostly decline in population, particularly in Southern Vermont, and particularly in the Northeast Kingdom. And that, I believe, and researchers believe, is tied to the urban and rural divide going on within the state. People either moving out of rural areas, or not coming to them to live in the first place, and moving to Burlington, and its, you know, job opportunities, its urban aspect, it’s, you know, a beautiful city. And, you know, people are attracted to that, and to its liveliness, which comes with upsides and downsides for the people trying to move there.

Give me an example. How is that affecting the City of Burlington, for example?

This interactive map shows where Vermont gained and lost population, 2008-2017: https://www.datawrapper.de/_/UL8wC/

Petenko: Well, I talked to a couple of people who mentioned housing as a big issue, The housing market has gotten a lot tighter. And it’s really hard for people to find cheaper housing or housing at the cheaper end of the spectrum, which is a tough choice to make between moving to this area that has, you know, a new job opportunity for you, but not being able to find an apartment that you can afford. And you know, right now, there’s a big affordable housing debate going on in Burlington over how to deal with those people moving in and looking for a place to live where they’re not giving up half of their income to rent.

Right. What about for places that aren’t in Chittenden County, these other areas that you cited that are losing people to some of those more urban areas? Where does that leave them?

Petenko: So I talked to Paul Costello, he’s the director of the Vermont Council of Rural Development. And he mentioned that rural communities are really actively thinking about how to handle their population loss.

Costello: No one’s coming from Washington, D.C. to a rural community in Vermont with a vision for what’s going to set the course for their economy. No one’s coming from Montpelier with that, it’s really about democracy and about setting course yourselves. Resources follow local leadership, local leadership and people being online for the future.

Petenko: A lot of these places are losing lots of their young people. And those young people become students and then they become families, they become working professionals in the town, so it can have effects on those towns for many decades to come.

Costello: Every town in the state wants to attract youth. Every town the state wants to attract creatives and entrepreneurs to their downtowns. Every town has a derelict building or a property that needs support. Almost every town has an infrastructure issue.

In some towns, it’s streetscape, bike paths, walkways, the river frontage. In other towns, it’s sewer. And they go to sewer, they come to the sewer idea, because they’re looking at demographics. And they’re saying, we can’t attract young families. What do we need to do to attract young families? We need more housing and affordable housing downtown — can’t do it because we don’t have the sewer infrastructure. And so the whole community prioritizes sewer infrastructure. And they line up a committee of local folks to design and work with their select board to advance the sewer infrastructure conversation. And we connect them with the agency of natural resources, USDA, all the other funders and partners who can help facilitate that process, including the Regional Development Corporation Planning Commission, and you kind of tee it up.

Petenko: They’re coming up with different ways to give young people job opportunities in those communities, to give them a pipeline to you know, a home, a family, a career, and also to attract people with new options, whether that’s, you know, better housing options, better downtown, you know, connecting them to things to do in and outside of town, to get people moving into these rural communities and make them more vibrant again.

Costello: Rural Vermont is not in collapse. There’s lots of creative people who are working very hard and are doing a lot of really thoughtful work around the future of their communities in their economy. And we try to bring those folks together to say, well, what’s the thing that would have the most leverage for you?

So someone like Paul is not deterred just by seeing these numbers that show overall population decline in some of those regions?

Petenko: Yeah, I mean, I’ve seen heard from some people that say, it’s going to be tough. But I think there’s not really any, from what I’ve talked to, none of the people have given any hint of giving up. They’re really attached to the place that they grew up in. I talked to one guy, he said, it’s easy to love your hometown. They’re just hoping to kind of spread that love to new people moving into the community.

Costello: You know, when you come down to it, you read the news, and you think that our country is in terrible shape. You look at the demographic challenge around rural communities, and you worry, you know, your first instinct is to worry. But one of the things that we’re lucky enough to see is how people will step up in common purpose, and how things like local democracy are still fundamental to the hearts and souls of Vermonters, and how, you know, words like patriotism, which are sometimes divisive. At the local level, like there’s this natural patriotism of place that’s still very fundamental to who we are. And people from outside Vermont are attracted to it, just as they’re attracted to community.

With this shift that you’re seeing, this kind of within the state, rural to urban migration. What’s the overall significance of that? I mean, what do we do with that information?

Petenko: Well, it’s a pretty big economic shift that’s happening across the nation. So I don’t want to sound defeatist, but maybe Vermont, you know, doesn’t have a lot of control over this. If there’s huge economic and social forces at play, Vermont is kind of getting swept up in it.

Costello: We have lost overall demographic, and we have a major challenge on the loss of youth and a major challenge on the aging of the population and workforce. And these are sort of fundamental challenges. But in no way are they be unique to Vermont. They’re not because Vermont is a bad place to do business, particularly. They’re everywhere in rural America. And if you cut a Vermont shape out of Southern Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, or most other western states, excluding the urban areas in those states, you’d actually look pretty darn good statistically in terms of youth, energy, creativity, economic activity, entrepreneurism. We’re actually an innovative state, despite that challenge.

Petenko: There could be a major demographic shift incoming. You know, maybe in a couple decades, all those millennials will decide after all, hey, you know what, I want to raise my family in, you know, a nicer community, and all move back out to the country. But for right now, it’s a really tough situation to be in, because Vermont is the second-most rural state in the country. And, you know, besides Burlington, that’s not going to change overnight. So I guess Vermont kind of needs to contend with, you know, do we want to hold on to our image as a rural area? Or do we want to kind of emphasize the fact that we do have this big, vibrant, growing city, potentially at the expense of the smaller communities that I believe Vermont does not want to be left behind.

Got it. Thanks, Erin.

Petenko: Thanks, Mike.