Public Assets Institute > Blog > Build on Vermont’s strengths

Build on Vermont’s strengths

U.S. News & World Report is out with its latest “Best States” rankings. Vermont was number five last year, behind Washington, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Utah. The report adds a new perspective to some of the debates we hear in Montpelier—about Vermont’s strengths, its weaknesses, and what matters.

U.S. News looks at a lot of factors to make its comparisons. They include equality indicators, like the distribution of income and the employment gap for people with disabilities. They look at the unemployment rate and the growth of the gross state product, but also the gap between men and women in workforce participation.

Vermont ranked first in that last metric. Looking at the share of women and men aged 16-64 who were in the workforce, U.S. News found the gender gap was smallest in Vermont. (It was largest in Utah.) The income gap between women and men also was among the smallest—Vermont was ranked fifth—as was the education gap by race (Vermont was third). All of these factors helped to put Vermont first in the overall “equality” category.

The report may encourage handwringers in Montpelier to relax a little. Vermont does need more young families to help bring down the average age, but warnings about youth fleeing the state are overblown. According to the U.S. News report, Vermont was in the middle of the pack in the “growth in young population” metric. The report looked at the increase in the 24-29 age cohort between 2014 and 2017. Vermont ranked 28th.

Similarly, the state’s pension fund liability may be more manageable than some make it out to be. There’s no question Vermont was negligent when it failed to make adequate pension contributions. But the U.S. News report looks at pension liability as a share of the state’s total personal income. By that measure, Vermont ranked 16th—in better shape than about two-thirds of the other states.

Affordability is another buzzword in Montpelier—and a metric U.S. News measured using two components: cost of living and housing affordability. Vermont didn’t do so well—40th in cost of living and 32nd in housing affordability for an overall ranking of 37th. Unfortunately, U.S. News didn’t provide enough detail about the cost of living calculation to determine whether the problem was one of high prices or low wages. In State of Working Vermont 2019, using data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we found consumer prices in Vermont were only slightly higher than the national averages, but wages were nearly 20 percent lower.

The state may well have done better overall if its affordability index had been a bit higher. But U.S News ranked Vermont first in:

  • Low infant mortality
  • Pre-school enrollment
  • Smallest labor force participation gap by gender
  • Low pollution health risk

Overall, Vermont’s fifth-place showing was pretty good. And while we don’t want to ignore the areas where we’re falling short, the state is best served if we focus on, build on, and promote our strengths.

Posted by Jack Hoffman on February 24, 2020 at 1:46 pm

One Response to “Build on Vermont’s strengths”

  1. David Tucker says:

    Nice piece, Jack. I always find the ‘fleeing Vermont’ tirades to be somewhat hollow. Our part of the Kingdom seems to be having an influx of younger families rather than the opposite.