By John McClaughry
For the past three years Gov. Phil Scott and others have expressed a concern about Vermont’s stagnant population. Last year the Legislature even created a New Worker Relocation Program to pay people to move to Vermont, conduct their businesses on line, help revitalize small communities, and of course pay Vermont taxes.
Nineteen years ago the Ethan Allen Institute circulated an incisive essay by Alan Ehrenhalt of Governing magazine, reporting on a “mysterious comeback” of small town America. He concluded then that “a large and growing number of professionals in their productive years are moving to small towns for reasons of security, sociability, and community participation … a smaller place somewhere far from the skyscrapers, where they will know and trust their neighbors and where quiet, walkable main streets can play the role that city neighborhoods used to play in their lives.”
Until recently small-town Vermont had seen little of this immigration. But over the past eight months three factors have begun to make that prediction become increasingly true.
First was COVID-19 that emerged in February and seems to have no expiration date. Second was the rioting in city after city, triggered by a series of shocking encounters between urban law enforcement and minorities. Third was the increased capability of many people to earn a living and work with others on line. (As I write this, my visiting daughter is online with a co-worker in Mozambique.)
Here are some recent column headlines: “People were leaving New York City before the coronavirus. Now what?” (WSJ 4/26). “Is COVID-19 the end of New York as we know it?” (Tablet, April).” “The Coming Urban Exodus” (WSJ 6/18). “COVID-19 and the Collapse of Complex Societies” (Reason, July).
Ellen Barry of the New York Times (9/26) looked at this from the receiving end: “The Virus Sent Droves to a Small Town.” She writes: “The population boomed in Winhall, Vt. [pop.769] as people tried to get away from COVID-19 hot spots. Bear complaints are up. Plumbers are booked until Christmas. And the dump is ‘sheer pandemonium.’”
Josh Hanford, Vermont’s housing commissioner, told lawmakers in August that since the COVID-19 crisis, homes in the state that cost over $1 million have seen a 300% increase in sales. “A lot of those are sitting on the market for over a year in the past and they’re selling like crazy right now.” (VTDigger 8/26). A realtor friend in Newport reports that she can barely keep up with the phone calls from people eager to buy homes in the relatively low-priced Northeast Kingdom, even without a site visit.
How should we Vermonters respond to this potentially revitalizing influx of new downcountry refugees? A lot needs to be said on this subject, but here are seven suggestions.
First, reacquaint ourselves and educate the newcomers with the principles for maintaining a free and democratic society set forth in the Vermont Constitution. Everyone needs to remember why Vermonters long ago wrote that document to wisely govern their affairs and protect their liberty.
Second, assure that all Vermonters — whether six generations on the farm or recently arrived from New York, Syria, Sudan or Bosnia — have full opportunity to become contributing and respected participants in our civic life and communities.
Third, reverse the baneful trend of centralizing all of the power of government in Montpelier. New arrivals want to participate in democratic communities and so far as possible deal with common concerns at a human scale, with neighbors they can come to trust, even if they do not always agree. (For this argument, see Frank Bryan and John McClaughry, The Vermont Papers: Recreating Democracy on a Human Scale, 1989.)
Fourth, Vermonters cherish a clean and beautiful environment. We expect newcomers to help us keep it that way.
Fifth, reaffirm our tradition of supporting in dignity those unable to support themselves, and respect and support the many civil society organizations that serve that purpose. But explain to newcomers that Vermonters have the primary responsibility, to the extent possible, to support themselves or otherwise contribute to the common good.
Sixth, expand our economic opportunities, celebrate our entrepreneurs and job creators, and resist the temptation to use the power of government to create somebody’s idea of The Perfect Little State, including ambitious but ineffectual schemes to signal our virtue to the world.
Seventh, recognize that many decent people are coming to Vermont to escape the suddenly increased threat of riot, arson and unchecked disorder in their cities. Assure them that we support our law enforcement in keeping the peace, while disciplining the very rare bad apple. Let them know, also, that unlike most of the places they’re coming from, in Vermont they will have a constitutionally protected right to own a firearm for self-defense.
Those seven thoughts may stimulate a useful conversation.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.