Vermont facing a ‘seismic shift’ in state as birth rate crashes, deaths on the rise

At the start of both a new year and a new decade, Vermont’s future looks uncertain as its resident population ages, young people scatter out of state, and few businesses of consequence are being lured to the Green Mountain State.

At a unique discussion held at the Counseling Service of Addison County in Middlebury late last year, experts gathered to present what has been described by some state leaders as a “seismic shift” in demographics.

One presentation in particular illustrated the profound impact the shift is having on schools, businesses, service providers, the state and local tax base, and other economic and social structures in Vermont.

Rachel Cummings, executive director of the Counseling Service of Addison County, introduced well-known economist Art Woolf to the podium, and acknowledged that the United Way and Addison County Economic Development Corporation worked together for months to have him visit to present an unbiased “state of the state” report for community leaders.

Cummings said local leaders wanted to learn, first hand, about Woolf’s analysis in order to address negative shifts they are already seeing in Addison County’s population and workforce.

“We are feeling this shift acutely here,” Cummings told the audience. “Within our employee makeup, 36 percent of our full-time staff is age 55 and older, and about 8 percent is 65 and older. Those 65 and older make up about a quarter of our staff.

“Our clients are aging, too. We’re noticing a drop in the kids were serving … the population we’re serving is getting older. So, we have to think about how we recruit, how we maintain staff, and how we attract people to come here and stay here.”

For the next two hours, Woolf laid out his data and said that Vermont is demographically different when compared to 49 other states.

Lou Varricchio/TNR

Economist Art Woolf: “In 2018, there were fewer births in Vermont than in 1859. That’s pretty dramatic.”

“I’ve been looking at this demographic (problem) for the last 15 years,” he said. “I was the lone voice in the crowd starting in the 2000s when I realized what was going on. But this is no longer big news; everybody knows Vermont is an aging state. However, the questions now are what does it mean, what are causes and consequences, and is there anything we can do about it. That’s what I am focusing on.”

Woolf said that from the early and mid-1800s to the 1950s, Vermont had almost no change in its population. But by the middle of the 20th century, things began to change.

“Beginning in the 1960s, Vermont’s population started to grow,” Woolf said. “It continued through the 1990s (and then stopped). And that was our experience, that things were normal. But there was a long period of stagnation that preceded that recent growth.”

In a sense, Vermont’s growth from the 1960s to the 1990s was an aberration, Woolf added, because the state’s population hasn’t grown since the year 2000.

“In the 2010 census we were growing at about one third of the rate of the United States. We were very different from the U.S., but then, from the 1960s to the 1990s, we looked like the rest of the U.S.,” he said. “Thus, Vermonters began to think that growth was normal. Many grew up when Vermont was like the rest of the U.S. — they didn’t have the (collective) memory of a time when Vermont was stagnant, wasn’t growing. That’s because people back then were moving out of state.”

To put today’s demographic shift in perspective, Vermont’s biggest export during the 1800s was its people, he said.

“Things were better elsewhere in the 1800s — fertility rates were normal, women were still having babies. But why would you want to farm, say, in Washington County (Vermont) when there’s Ohio out there? Yes, the winters are long in Ohio, but much of that state has pretty rich top soil without moving a lot of rocks. So, you can actually trace the Vermont population’s westward move with all the new towns being named after the Vermont towns they left.”

Lou Varricchio

Rachel Cummings: “We are feeling this shift acutely here. Within our employee makeup, 36 percent of our full-time staff is age 55 and older, and about 8 percent is 65 and older. Those 65 and older make up about a quarter of our staff. Our clients are aging, too.”

Vermont’s mid- to late-20th century growth spurt was a short-lived phenomena; so, don’t expect it to occur in the future, he said. The short decades of growth experienced in the memories of many older, living Vermonters will simply not return.

“Our population grew by 40,000 to 50,000, per decade, through the 1980s. But since the 2000s there has been essentially no growth,” he noted.

Systemically, a large part of Vermont’s recent stagnation has less to do about high taxes and regulations and more with its unusually low millennial generation birth rate and soon-to-expand baby boomer generation death rate.

“In Vermont, births went up in the 1980s, but then it’s been at zero. You are not going to get any population increase here through births,” Woolf said.

“The baby boomers had a lot of babies, but the big change came with the children of the baby boomers. … In the middle of the millennial generation, births in Vermont started plummeting and stayed down. In 2018, there were fewer births in Vermont than in 1859. That’s pretty dramatic. So, think about baby girls born in 1980; they were 30 years old by 2010. By the 2000s there are fewer births; so, there were fewer births 30 years later when these females were in their child-bearing years. Births are going down, deaths are going up. Since 2010, births are going down and deaths (are similar). … But when the oldest baby boomers now in their 70s start dying, the number of deaths will go up — clearly. And births will be going down in the next 20 and 30 years.”

With no natural increase in population and low immigration in Vermont, at least compared to the rest of America, Woolf doesn’t see a way out of Vermont’s demographic and economic stagnation.

“The profile of immigrants in Vermont is very different from the rest of the nation. Most of our immigrants historically come from Canada. But an increase in immigration will have to be one of the solutions with our low birth rate,” he said.

Woolf offered no definitive solutions to Vermont’s demographic crisis. While he believes that taxes are high and growth will be essential despite strong, partisan political opposition to it, attitudes must change from the State House to Main Street.

Without increased immigration, he noted, the local population alone will not increase the workforce and tax base. Thus current tax and other public policies will have to change along with a new “attitude of growth” if Vermont is to stop its downward death spiral.

“We have to change people’s attitudes,” Woolf said. “People (in Vermont) often have a negative opinion about growth, but if you ask them ‘do you think your income should go up in the future?’ who would ever say no? Well, that’s what growth is — it allows all of us to have a rising standard of living. To get to the solution, first we have to acknowledge there’s a problem. That’s why I believe economic growth is a good thing.”

Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Andreas Bohnenstengel and Lou Varricchio/TNR

20 thoughts on “Vermont facing a ‘seismic shift’ in state as birth rate crashes, deaths on the rise

  1. Why are we moaning about our decreasing population while our leislatures are voting in more abortion rights? Do you think there isn’t a connection? Over the last 20 years we have averaged about 1000 abortions on Vermont women and lost about 1000 students each year in the school census. Look it up.
    There is a natural way to increase population.
    Women still get pregnant, so let’s support them. If we are concerned about our death rate, let’s support life. Let’s support adoption instead of abortion.

    Children are the joy of the world. THey will lift up everyones spirits. will lift up everyone’s vie

  2. Vermont Tiger, under the editorial leasdership of Geoff Norman, spent 5 years predicting this and other economic phenomenona and Art was a regular and thoughtful contributor. It’s counsel was largely ignored. Now we face existential risks that transcend the skills and insight of our leadership. We are the state that propelled Sanders, a self described socialist, to a national platform. Are any of us surprised we’re facing fundamental challenges to our financial and, perhaps, cultural survival? The Utopian experiments have failed globally. It’s time to embrace the realities of modern economics and favor growth and innovation over failed philosophy.

  3. My family left Vt because of the high taxes. We saw a significant increase in our disposable income after we left. Our property taxes where cut by 70%, our income taxes are lower, our fuel taxes are lower. We have better schools now. We have more opportunists job wise. There was nothing Vermont had to offer but 2 months of nice summer weather. It wasn’t worth it. I can buy a car and expect it to last 10+ years, not to be rotted out by the brine on the roads.

    Vermont in the rear view mirror was the best financial decision we’ve made as family, bar none.

  4. This downward “death spiral” can trace its beginnings to the passage of the statewide property tax in 1997. We said at the time that this piece of public policy would have a long term negative impact on Vermont and I believe it has.

    • I have believed that as well, with the tax and spend politicians in Montpelier, wanting to pass yet more new taxes and increase the school property tax by another 6%, I feel we will go down the toilet even sooner.

    • I have believed that as well, with the tax and spend politicians in Montpelier, wanting to pass yet more new taxes and increase the school property tax by another 6%. There is less reason to move here or as far as our young are concerned to stay.

  5. Interesting: “Woolf doesn’t see a way out of Vermont’s demographic and economic stagnation…….” and “Thus current tax and other public policies will have to change along with a new “attitude of growth” if Vermont is to stop its downward death spiral.” and ” attitudes must change from the State House to Main Street.”

    These points to me are the problem. Montpelier isn’t going to change and they are the case of the “death spiral”. Seems that those that moved in and elected those Regressives in Montpelier want to clean out VT of the natives so they can enjoy a happy Green Mountain utopia. They have cash from selling their expensive properties, trust funds, stock portfolios etc. So they don’t care about taxes.

    If a property where they came from had property taxes $10K and up, in VT taxes of $5K is a godsend. I know a person from Westchester County NY property taxes $25K, doesn’t mind a $5K tax bill and now owns a home with 50 acres next door to me. Vt will continue to loose people by moving or death.

    If Woolf doesn’t see a way out of VT’s sad economic condition, I’m sure many concerned people can inform him. The problem can easily be solved. Just read some of these comments for starters.

    • Your point is spot on. And property taxes are the ‘canary in the coal mine’- it’s my single greatest expense. If true market forces regulated our economy, we’d be fine. But when the government intervenes, picking winners and losers, ostensibly because they know what’s best for everyone, the ‘death spiral’ increases in velocity.

      Case in point. When the number of students for K-12 education services declines by 30% as it has, in a free market one would expect the number of people providing those services to decline. And in an efficient free market, that work force would decline even more because staff efficiency continues to improve too. But the government, through its education monopoly, is preventing this from happening for political reasons. Consequently, unless and until we have free market School Choice, we will see the return on our property tax investment continue to decline, until, ultimately, the monopoly bankrupts itself…which will likely occur sooner than later

  6. A new increasing industry in VT, funeral homes. people being taxed to death. With all the laws and regulations, it leads to stressful living by hard working true Vermonters. It’s the inverse principal: less people, bigger government.

  7. It should be a major concern to every citizen of Vermont when the most recent population figures were revealed. Currently we have DROPPED below the 624K population level and the trend continues on a downward / exodus scale. Legislators seem to dismiss population numbers as “Unicorn Fantasy” as they continue to increase tax obligations / spending placing more of a burden on already over-taxed Vermonters but cannot account for the increase. Have citizens reached the breaking point yet? I believe the 2020 elections will reflect that glaring fact. Get out the Popcorn folks.

    • John,

      In 1650, the native population was less than 10,000.
      They lived in the most desirable areas, with rivers and lakes for fishing and hunting
      They cleared trees for vegetable gardens.
      All those areas are now built up with modernity.

      Vermont likely could not even support 1000 people living off the remaining, undesirable land, largely devoid of huntable fauna and edible flora.

      We should celebrate when Vermont’s population decreases.

  8. Everything is relative and we’re in a transitional economy. Not to worry. ‘Growth’ includes two economic aspect ratios. Volume/investment and Efficiency/investment.

    Traditionally, ‘growth’ has meant ‘more’ – more people, more markets, more money, more stuff. The idea behind systemic inflation is, in fact, a contrivance to incentivize economic participants (all of us) to invest our money in ‘volume’ oriented projects as opposed to saving it in our mattresses doing nothing. ‘Put your money to work’ they say. If the money in our mattress is going to decline in value, we’re forced to invest it with someone who wants to ‘increase volume’, lest our savings decline in value over time. Read about ‘the velocity of money’.

    But the second growth aspect of an economy is ‘efficiency’, which has been underemphasized for years. Instead of quantitative ‘growth’ requiring ‘more’ of everything, growth can also be manifest in having the same amount of stuff, but investing less energy and less time, with fewer people, to create it.

    Economies have always included both aspects. But volume has always ruled the roost. Today, however, volume is reaching what we in business call a ‘diminishing point of return’. One person creates X. Two people create 5X. Four people create 10X. And so forth. But at some point, increasing the number of participants doesn’t increase the rate of return on an investment. In fact, at some point, increasing the number of participants can have a detrimental effect.

    Free market economies are self-regulating in this regard. Economic non-market contrivances by government regulation (e.g. arbitrarily increasing the minimum wage) are always detrimental to an otherwise healthy market.

    For example, if we compare the calculating power of computers over time with the speed and efficiency of an automobile, for an automobile to compete with the return on investment in computers you would be able to buy a Rolls Royce that gets a million miles to the gallon and travels at 500,000 miles per hour for the cost of a one day parking garage in Boston. The problem is, of course, no one has to go that fast or that far no matter how cost effective it may be.

    Today we’re in a transition. We’re going to have fewer people. That doesn’t mean we won’t have economic well-being. It does, however, mean that the traditional definition of growth is rebalancing from increased volumes to increased efficiencies. If we allow free markets to do their thing, we’ll all be fine.

    • Yes. However, the VT State Gov will not allow free markets to function. So, in the meantime, our costs increases and the ROI goes down.

  9. Vermont’s average age is increasing.
    Older Vermont people do not make more children.
    Younger Vermont people do make children, but have left Vermont and have them in other states.
    The world is coming to an end?
    Not really.
    The less people, the less pollution, the less damage to the environment.
    We should celebrate each year when Vermont’s population decreases.
    It would be good for the forests and for the remainder of the debilitated flora and fauna.
    Who NEEDS all those people?
    Government programs do?
    Oh, my Lord.

    • By your standards, Mr. Post, young families have no right in earning a good living, and raise a family. You sir are part of the problem. This state is in free fall. Medial cost are the 4th highest in the country, w are the 3rd unfriendliest state in the country to do business in, 4th highest taxed state in the country. It has become a welfare state for the working class family. We should put gates up on the north and south borders of this state, saying we are closed for business. Last person out shut the light off.

  10. Don’t forget we slaughter about 1k Vermonters a year through abortion. That would make a significant difference….

  11. Every single Vermont Legislator/senator should be forced to have this read to them every day for a month or more until, perhaps, a smidgin of economic sensibility seeps into their infected brains.

  12. Hey, Ms. White suggest you pay attention to Art Woolf before you figure out how to spend more of the tax payers’ money by creating more state agencies.

  13. The totalitarian Leftists in the state house in Montpelier will milk the tax payers of Vermont until it’s time to hammer the final nail in Vermont’s coffin.

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