Editor’s note: This commentary is by Steve May, a 2020 Democratic candidate for state Senate in Chittenden County. May is a former member of the Vermont AFL-CIO executive board and former vice president of Champlain Valley Central Labor Council. He is a clinical social worker from Richmond, where he also served on the Selectboard.
For years Vermonters have heard about the cost of living in Vermont. We are all too aware of the realities associated with making a life here. Wages are too low and costs are too high. This past week, the Legislature took up an override vote on paid family leave. This vote promised to be just the first in a series where the Legislature will likely consider on a series of economic justice issues. These votes also are likely to be just the first of a series of bills destined for a gubernatorial veto and promised override efforts in the state House and Senate.
The reality is that these bills are empty gestures. Don’t misunderstand — I support them, and if elected I would have voted for them. But in reality they are too small, they offer too little change. These bills provide too little progress in exchange for too much disruption in our system. They aren’t half the loaf; they represent a fistful of breadcrumbs. A paid leave bill that refuses to allow someone to take time off to care for their own health emergency is an embarrassment. A minimum wage bill that only gets to $12.55 per hour helps some but leaves a many, many more Vermonters abandoned in its wake.
To be clear, we as Americans are laughingstocks compared to the rest of the industrialized world. These half measures proposed for consideration are enshrined as basic rights in most countries. The industrialized world accepts that paid family leave is part of the set of rights associated with living in a free society. Nobody should have to choose between their career and caring for their family members. The message from this vote is clear — in light of the proposal taken up by the Legislature this past week, disability coverage isn’t a right covered by the law but instead is a privilege. Vermonters will not be able to take time off to care for a sick parent or child for some time now as a result of this vote’s failure.
Central to the argument of many who opposed the paid family leave bill was concerns over cost. Costs will go up, but they certainly will go up as well when those workers can’t work because they are absent from the workplace. Costs will go up due to lost productivity. Costs will go up either way. More to the point, I reject the idea that people will avoid doing business in Vermont because of the increased costs of doing business here because of a small increase in payroll taxes necessary to support paid leave. Instead, I believe any increased cost will be offset by value driven consumers and business owners who want to be part of a family-first Vermont business environment. I believe that people will want to do business here because of the family-first environment that we have created, which will deepen and broaden the already immense appeal of the Vermont brand. This is no less true when it comes to minimum wage legislation or subsidized child care, both of which have been hotly debated due to their cost in past years.
We need a paradigm shift — big, wholesale, systemic change. Our current economic unreality is mired in muck. The “moonlighting in Vermont” economy of some other time is no longer a symptom, it’s the disease. Too many people are working three mediocre part-time jobs in the middle of a booming economy. We are consistently being told that we are at full employment. Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston responsible for measuring Vermont’s unemployment numbers affirm what the state Department of Labor is already telling us. For all the talk about hiring, there seems to be a disconnect for a wide swath of working Vermonters. Low wage, part time, sub-standard, menial, uninspired drudgery — this is not a work environment to be proud of. This is why our children leave Vermont. We have reached full employment, with “now hiring” signs multiplying by the day.
Vermont’s economy needs a systemic change. This is why I support a Universal Basic Income. Basic income has been in the press a lot because Andrew Yang, a 2020 Democratic candidate for president, has spoken about it a lot. Like Yang I believe in starting with a broad-based funding mechanism to support it. In fact, the most versions of basic income are based on multiple funding sources.
A basic income similar to Alaska’s Permanent Fund could deliver Vermonters an annual dividend which permits state residents to use monies to address their needs as they see them, placing the responsibility on individual citizens. Alaska derives its funding from oil revenues, returning a check to Alaskans based on a percentage of gross sales. That having been said, any Vermont-based plan need not be based a funding mechanism. In fact, a most robust basic income would depend on multiple streams of funding to insulate a dividend program from any potential financial shocks.
Selecting a funding source or multiple funding sources is a concern that can ultimately be addressed at a future time. Though important, it is essential that we are not caught up in the question of addressing funding source at this time, because to do so would miss the underlying issues of larger fundamental and systemic failure in the economic system. Basic income is supported by economists across the political spectrum — left, right and center — at a time when almost nothing else is. Robert Reich and Milton Friedman agree on the utility of UBI as sound public policy, and perhaps nothing else. That point should not be taken lightly.
The simple truth is that the American workplace is changing. That change is dramatic and it’s creating wholesale displacement of workers across our financial system. Vermont is not exempt from these pressures. The gig economy and automation are major drivers in this economic reality. Simply stated, something has to give. With more automation there will simply be less need for people to labor and the work they preform will be transformed. Progressive Rep. Brian Cina from Burlington should be lauded for his leadership on the Advisory Committee on Artificial Intelligence in framing the underlying question on the future of work and the relation between people and technology in their workplace moving forward.
Basic income is uniquely positioned to place a floor under working families through a period of great displacement. It enables individuals to follow their bliss and pursue work that can feed their souls. Equally important is the idea that we need to do something transformative in the economy, because our economy is letting down the vast majority of ordinary Vermonters in some way or another. The problems are systemic: We aren’t just being failed a little bit, we are being failed on a massive scale, in multiple phases, and a large-scale re-think is needed in light of the changes confronting the average Vermont worker.