The problem with Vermont's bright idea

Have you heard? Vermont - home of Bernie Sanders, Ben & Jerry's and fresh maple syrup on tap - is now ...

Posted: Jun 11, 2018 10:53 AM
Updated: Jun 11, 2018 10:53 AM

Have you heard? Vermont - home of Bernie Sanders, Ben & Jerry's and fresh maple syrup on tap - is now willing to more-or-less bribe prospective migrants to move there, to the tune of $5,000 a year for up to two years, no questions asked. (The only catches, if you can call them catches, are that you need to be employed, working remotely for an out-of-state company, and willing to settle down in a remote, pastoral state with the highest dairy cow-to-person ratio in the nation.)

The initiative is one of multiple campaigns designed to address the Green Mountain State's dwindling working-age population. "We have about 16,000 fewer workers than we did in 2009. That's why expanding our workforce is one of the top priorities of my administration," said Gov. Phil Scott in a statement explaining the novel moves. "We must think outside the box to help more Vermonters enter the labor force."

It's understandable that Vermont is seeking ways to bring in new blood and energize its flat economy, which has been projected as having the second-worst outlook in the nation over the next five years. What's ironic is how inside the box its "outside the box" thinking really is. Because while Vermont could be taking this moment to bring new diversity to a state that's the second-whitest in the United States, it's instead investing in initiatives that could easily end up maintaining the state's culturally monolithic status.

If Vermont had aimed this policy at explicitly encouraging new Americans to migrate to the state (the policy does not), it would be redressing a significant shortfall in the state's demographics.

Consider that immigrants make up about 13% of the nation as a whole, but account for just 4% of Vermonters . The state ranks 39th out of 50 in its percentage of immigrant population -- and as the US immigrant population has risen (by 5.8% since 2010), the immigrant population in Vermont has dropped by 12.8%. Over half of the immigrants that do come to Vermont are from Canada or Europe. Compare that to the top three "sending nations" of immigrants to the US as a whole - Mexico, India and China.

Now, let's be clear here: The reasons for lack of racial diversity are complicated in this state, which is among the most liberal in the nation. It also has America's highest percentage of LGBTQ individuals, at 5.3%. And from my own visits I can confirm that Vermonters are generally warm and welcoming to tourists, whose spending is responsible for about one in 10 of the state's jobs.

But tourists aren't permanent residents. And while the state is progressive, like many places with limited diversity it can also be notoriously insular - it's said that to be considered a "true" Vermonter, a "woodchuck" as opposed to a "flatlander," you need to have been present in the state for generations, not years.

That's a tough barrier to overcome when you're not just from a different state, but a different country, and even more so when you're of a different race or ethnicity than 94% of the rest of the population.

And lack of diversity tends to encourage lack of diversity. It's hard for outsiders to want to move to a place where there isn't an existing community, or a cultural infrastructure to accommodate your food, customs and traditions.

Combine that with the tense rhetoric associated with immigration in the nation today -- which has led to an ugly backlash even in this progressive bastion -- and it's clear that trying to entice out-of-state, work-from-home techno-able-professionals that might look like the overwhelming majority of Vermonters was an easier pill for the state to swallow than throwing open its gates to the world.

The fact is, as Vermont, and America as a whole, ages and sees its workforce decline, immigration is unquestionably a critical part of the solution. But Vermont is paying American workers to move to its small towns and rolling hills, even as millions of people are willing to do just about anything to move to the United States. Some are desperately fleeing horrific conditions in their native countries. Others are simply aspiring to live better lives in a new one.

Not all are "poor, huddled masses" - the H1-B visa program for educated professionals with special skills remains hugely oversubscribed. But here's a tell on Vermont: it had the fourth-lowest number of H1-B visa holders in the nation as of 2017 - just 366, far behind other New England states, like New Hampshire, with 1,906. It was, however, in the same category as far more conservative states like South Dakota (347 H1-Bs), Wyoming (137) and Montana (191).

Does the state of Bernie Sanders really want to be in that company?

If Vermont really wants to boost its economy -- while attracting young professionals and technology entrepreneurship to the state -- here's a radical idea: It should use the funds it has set aside to line the pockets of mobile American workers and put them instead toward becoming a better destination for immigrants from Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.

It should do this by providing incentives for companies to hire immigrant talent; encouraging universities to partner with business on study-to-work apprenticeship programs; and investing in enhancing its social infrastructure to be more accessible and inclusive of people for whom English isn't a first language, and American isn't a native culture.

Make the Green Mountain State more brown? It's a radical idea for a radical state.

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