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Aging Vermont

01/09/07 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(HOST) What answers might a legislative study committee provide about keeping Vermont an attractive, vibrant place to live? Commentator Allen Gilbert thinks the answers may be more complex than convincing Vermont kids not to leave home.

(GILBERT) A legislative study committee has been looking at Vermont population trends. Its report will soon be before the full Legislature for discussion.

The report is supposed to answer questions that were raised last year when Governor James Douglas wanted to create a pool of scholarships to keep students in Vermont after graduation. The Legislature didn't buy the idea. The price tag was enormous, and the funding was uncertain. There were other issues, such as the demographic statistics underlying the governor's plan. People wondered, What exactly is going on in the state?

A big question is whether projected population shifts in Vermont are unique - or are they similar to what other states - and, indeed, other countries - are facing. Vermont's population is supposedly aging rapidly. However, that's true of many other places. The baby boom wave is cresting.

I've seen statistics that show Vermont is actually a net importer of kids. That's because the state's higher education industry attracts thousands of students to Vermont colleges. So, even though many Vermont kids leave the state after high school graduation, many others arrive from elsewhere and stay once they graduate.

It's natural for a young adult to want to leave his or her home and see the broader world. I can understand why a 17-year-old with diploma in hand wants to head off to a big city, the West Coast, or the South. In fact, you might argue that our education system has failed if kids DON'T feel as though they need to spread their wings a bit.

Even if we assume for the moment that our state's population is graying, is it true that the state's tax base will shrink as the population ages? The governor and his economic forecasters say "yes." But I wonder. It's true that retired persons are no longer paying taxes on employment wages, since they're no longer working. But retirees still need income, and most of that income is taxed - Social Security, IRAs, 401(k)s, investments. Vermont, in fact, routinely has one of the highest percentages of taxes derived from so-called unearned income. In terms of tax revenue, I'm not sure that a retiree is such a bad resident to have.

It seems as though we're in a fog of demographic statistics and tax projections. It's hard to know exactly what forces are at play here. Are the Vermont industries that cater to the young worried that their piece of the economic pie will shrink? The governor's scholarship plan suggests that's the case, since the scholarships can be used only at Vermont schools -- but why only Vermont schools? If we really care about having more young people in the state, we wouldn't care where they went to college - we'd make sure they'd want to make Vermont home. And the way we'd do that is to offer vibrant communities, an attractive working landscape, clean air, pure water, universal health care, and a forward-looking energy plan. If we want to ensure that Vermont has a bright future - no matter the age of its residents - we have to reach for these things. Let's hope that the Legislative study report provides some ideas about how we can do that.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. This afternoon commentator Edith Hunter says that young people leaving Vermont for greener pastures is nothing new.

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