Kids Count

Editorial, Rutland Herald
July 31, 2009

Vermont finished eighth among the states in the latest ranking by the Annie E. Casey Foundation of children’s health and welfare.

The study looked at data from 2006 and 2007 in a variety of categories, such as children living in poverty, teen births, cigarette smoking, child mortality, and low birth-weight babies. With Vermont’s small population, results may fluctuate more widely than in larger states, but year by year, Vermont has finished high in the foundation’s rankings.

The other top finishers, from first to seventh, were New Hampshire, Minnesota, Utah, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa and North Dakota.

The bottom eight finishers, from 43th to 50th, were New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Vermont officials are reluctant to crow about Vermont’s ranking because they are only too aware of the continuing problems of rural poverty in the state. And yet Vermont’s commitment to services for children, including education, has to be an important factor in the state’s continuing success in discouraging harmful trends such as teenage pregnancy and smoking. Vermont’s commitment to children’s health is evidenced by the fact that 43 percent of Vermont children are covered by Medicaid or Dr. Dynasaur.

The poverty afflicting the Southern states in the bottom tier of the foundation’s ranking impinges on the welfare of children in two ways. Poverty itself creates health problems and social pathologies that hurt children. And the low levels of taxation and spending on education and social services in the low-ranking states fails to lift children out of the poverty in which they are mired.

In other words, the relative health of Vermont children is no accident. It reflects the commitment of Vermonters who are willing to pay for essential services.

It is important to keep these realities in mind during the ongoing discussions about taxation and budget priorities. The Legislature and the Douglas administration face daunting challenges in keeping the state budget and tax rates under control. But it’s important to recognize the value of the services that, over the years, we have chosen to support, the beneficial effects of which have shown up in the foundation’s rankings.

In a recent interview, Gov. James Douglas emphasized his dislike for higher taxes passed by the Legislature this year over his veto and the need to avoid additional tax hikes in the future. He said he continues to encounter wealthy Vermonters who say escalating tax rates in Vermont have persuaded them to move their residences to Florida (ranked 36th by the foundation) or Alabama (ranked 48th).

Vermont’s economy would suffer from a significant exodus of wealthy taxpayers, in part because of the prosperity created by successful businesses and their well-compensated executives and in part because income tax revenue from wealthy taxpayers constitutes a high percentage of the overall take in taxes.

So far, however, census information suggests that the out-migration of wealthy Vermonters is at least matched by a comparable in-migration. What is significant is that the anecdotes that seem to strike a chord with Douglas involve the travails of millionaires. At least, those are the ones he is fond of repeating. In contrast, it is ordinary working Vermonters who choose year after year to support their schools through their support of school budgets and whose representatives in Montpelier have struggled to preserve services for children.

When asked where in the budget he would cut to save money, Douglas mentions first education. This answer is problematic for several reasons. First, education spending is the province of local voters, not the governor, so in pointing the finger at education he is evading responsibility. Second, by attacking education in Vermont he potentially undermines an institution that is one of the keys to the welfare of Vermont’s children.

Vermont’s millionaires may continue to move to Florida or Alabama. It is nothing new. The weather is warmer there. In doing so, they also get out of the citizen’s responsibility for adequate support of children. By contrast, those Vermonters who stay, including the rich ones, have the satisfaction of knowing they are fulfilling their civic responsibilities to the next generation

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