BENNINGTON -- A study released by the Public Assets Institute, entitled the "State of Working Vermont 2013," shows that life is not improving for many Vermonters since the start of the Great Recession in 2007, which has been called by many the worst economic downturn in the United States since the Great Depression.
"State of Working Vermont 2013," which is created in conjunction with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., "highlights how working Vermonters and their families are faring in the current economy. It also shows how economic conditions have changed, for better or for worse, in recent years. These indicators can help policymakers focus attention and resources on the problems Vermonters face," according to the study.
The report pointed to increased poverty and homeless rates, decreased spending power of the median Vermont household, and jobs not growing at a fast enough rate. "As of a year ago, too many Vermonters were still worse off than they were before the crash," said Paul Cillo, executive director of the Public Assets Institute, which is a Montpelier-based nonprofit.
Poverty and homelessness are two areas that Vermont has struggled in since 2007. Before the recession, in 2006, about 8 percent of Vermont residents lived below the poverty line. In 2007 that number jumped up to just below 10 percent. It has since grown for three straight years, putting the current rate at around 12 percent. Similarly, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, homelessness in Vermont has risen from around 1,000 in 2007 to over 1,400 in Jan. 2013.
"The biggest struggle we have is finding [qualified] employees to fill vacant positions," said Michael Harrington, Bennington's director of economic and community development, who noted that Bennington County's unemployment rate has been showing definite signs of improvement. "We have been able to shrink our unemployment rate to a manageable level. What we need now is to increase educational and training opportunities to make sure our workers are qualified for the positions that are available."
Harrington also pointed to a growth of small businesses in the town. "Many have closed, but many have opened as well," he said, noting that most of the businesses that have opened in the town are small businesses that employ only 5-7 people, but typically pay higher wages than larger stores. Harrington also praised the manufacturing sector in Bennington, which he described as "going strong."
Joann Erenhouse, executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, agreed with Harrington that Bennington's economy was on the way to improvement. "We have a strong manufacturing base," said Erenhouse. "There are new stores that have opened on Main Street I do have the sense that good things are happening."
Erenhouse also said that Vermont often lags behind the rest of the country in terms of economic trends, noting that Vermont was one of the slowest states to feel the effects of the recession in the first place.
The study does note that unemployment rates are falling; in fact, in Dec. 2012 Vermont had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. However, it also notes that employment rates have not been rising as fast as unemployment rates have been going down. "Average unemployment for 2009, in the depths of the recession, was 24,700. Over the next three years, unemployment dropped by 7,000, but employment grew by only 3,500. For every person who returned to work, one left the labor force. Since 2012, the number of Vermonters who say they are working has continued to decline," states the report.
The study also noted that, "At the current rate of job creation, nearly 300 per month, it will take Vermont until 2020 -- 13 years from the start of the recession-- to get back to pre-crash levels. For Vermont to return to its 2006 annual average unemployment (3.7 percent) and workforce participation (72.1 percent) rates, it needs 280 new jobs every month for 84 months. If Vermont added jobs at rates seen in the 1990s -- 400 to 600 a month -- recovery would come more quickly.
The 30-page report concludes by making several recommendations to the state legislature, including, "To boost the economy, invest public funds in education and infrastructure, which benefit everyone, rather than give tax breaks to a few chosen businesses, eliminate regressive school property taxes on primary residences so that all Vermont residents pay school taxes as a percentage of income rather than a percentage of property value, reduce tax breaks that benefit primarily upper-income taxpayers, such as mortgage interest deductions for expensive residences and second homes, increase Vermont's minimum wage, which is worth less today than it was 40 years ago, after adjustment, and increase Vermont's child care subsidies so that more low-income parents have access to high-quality care and education for their children and can go to work." The report also suggests that Vermont follow through on the goals outlined in Vermont's Plan to End Homelessness, which was issued by the Vermont Council on Homelessness in Dec. 2012.
"The indicators highlighted in this report ought to be the main focus of legislators' attention when they return to the State House next month," said Cillo, "The Legislature took an important step in 2012 when it declared, in statute, that the purpose of the state budget is to ‘address the needs of the people of Vermont in a way that advances human dignity and equity.' Now our political leaders need to follow through on that commitment and get serious about reducing poverty, increasing Vermonters' incomes, and strengthening the middle class. If Vermont had more people working at higher-wage jobs, that could help balance the state budget," Cillo adds, "which seems to be all people talk about in Montpelier these days."
The entire study is available online, at publicassets.org
Derek Carson can be reached for comment a firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB