Editor’s note: In September, the Caledonian-Record published an exclusive series by AP award-winning writer Bethany Knight of Glover on poverty and cash welfare benefits in the Northeast Kingdom, where jobs are scarce and more than 25 percent of residents live at or below the federal poverty line. The series looks at four of the five welfare programs administered by the state Department of Families and Children’s Economic Services Division: Reach Up, which helps parents with children under 18 find work and stability; 3SquaresVT, which funds food for adults and children; Fuel Assistance, which helps heat households of adults and children; and General Assistance, the last resort for adults with no minor children and no means of support. The Caledonian Record and Knight have generously allowed VTDigger to republish an edited version of the series, which we do in 11 parts from Dec. 21 to Jan. 2.
Vermont’s late U.S. Sen. George Aiken christened this lush green corner of Vermont the “Northeast Kingdom” some 60 years ago, when active farms, granite sheds, water-powered mills and passenger railroads wove through the woods.
But today, the Northeast Kingdom suffers from a triple whammy: It has the highest unemployment rate in Vermont, the lowest wages in the state and is home to prisons in its two largest communities.
The Northeast Kingdom has become Vermont’s deadend, where old tires and broken appliances are dumped at night. If the Moretown landfill closes, it will be home to the state’s last operating public landfill.
All but a few barns are empty. Downtowns host empty storefronts. Trucking companies have come and gone. Ethan Allen has one last factory operating. Fairbanks Scales in St. Johnsbury is a shadow of its former self. Newport City ski-related industries, where so many men and women earned a decent living, are no more. Manufacturing jobs are in New Hampshire. Only Vermont prisons are hiring.
Seems more like the “Northeast Kingdump” now.
“Talk about an infestation,” says a Newport advocate for the poor, gesturing east, toward the Northern State Correctional Facility. “We have high security fencing right there. Where do you think these people stay when they get out?”
Long-term unemployment keeps close company with addiction and criminal activity.
“Vermont is not the Vermont of my childhood,” says a native who moved to Boston in the 1990s for a decent-paying job. “We never had to lock our doors. No one ever had their home broken into.”
Copper pipes weren’t stolen and sold for salvage to buy drugs, either. Nor had storage facilities sprung up like coltsfoot on the roadsides, housing the remains of broken, uprooted marriages and families.
“Everyone knew everyone, you could find a job,” recalls Jack Ruggles, whose family operated the Pierce Block in Barton for 46 years. “Big French families had gardens and a dairy farm. They came to town on Saturday night in their old farm truck.” Barton had a movie theater, pharmacy, two grocery stores, a car dealership, shoe store, two hotels and more.
Once school was over in the spring, out-of-state families came to the area lakes and stayed for the summer. Trains ran to Boston from Barton, and unemployment was not a term tied like tin cans to the Northeast Kingdom wagon.
Today, one grocery, a Chinese restaurant and a tiny drugstore run by a televised pharmacist makes up Barton’s business district. The liquor store and gift shop burned down. A lone freight train whistles occasionally past the village and town of 2,800. Greyhound hasn’t stopped in more than 10 years.
“Every town had overseers of the poor,” Ruggles say. “If you needed assistance with groceries, he would go with you and the town would pay for it and help you find a place to stay. He would make sure, if you weren’t working and if you could, to help you get employed.”
In 1797, just six years after this rugged strip became a state, Vermont’s first citizens enacted its first law concerning the poor: “Every town and place in this state shall relieve, support and maintain their own poor.” Hundreds of poor farms were opened, where families and transients could work, eat and live until they settled. Vermont’s flood of 1927, followed by the national Depression, forced state and federal governments to share care for the poor, disabled and elderly. Social Security and public works programs were introduced; mental hospitals and institutions were erected.
In 1967, Vermont passed the Social Work Act, repealing the towns’ authority to operate poor farms and abolishing the overseer. The law was life changing for the poor, making the state legally responsible for them.
Forty-five years later, Vermont is setting records in the Northeast Kingdom. The area has the highest number of government services and benefits for the poor in state history and the highest percentage of people living in poverty.
The Northeast Kingdom Community Action, command central for the area’s neediest, boasts a budget topping $8 million. Colorful brochures wave like flags on the offices walls, promoting free programs, both government and private. Programs include conflict resolution; health counseling for pregnant and breastfeeding women, new mothers and infants; prevention of shaken baby syndrome; legal help; fuel assistance; how to be a teen parent and how to parent a teen; school lunches and 3SquaresVT food benefits; health insurance; child care; support groups for a myriad of chronic health challenges; and Reach Up welfare grants.
Close to 100 state employees work out of the Department of Children and Families offices in Newport and St. Johnsbury helping thousands of poor people apply for an array of benefits. If they get a job, most of them keep most of their benefits.
Vermont’s Department of Children and Families Commissioner David Yacovone, who manages a $334 million budget and 1,000 state employees, says he is thinking about how public assistance could shift to a more community-based model, where people know each other and their area.
Whatever happened to Sen. Aiken’s “Kingdom”?
Old-timers and state police veterans point to 1978, the year Interstate 91 was completed. Criminal elements from Boston and Montreal began to traffic drugs, using this fast getaway. Even the tourists stayed off winding, slow Route 5, closing vacation cabins, motels and diners.
Big business dairy farms in California, Florida and New York began milking 500 or more cows two or even three times a day. Abundant milk production drove down milk prices and created new employment in the Kingdom: farm liquidators and auctioneers.
Vermont started to churn out environmental laws that discourage, if not prohibit, manufacturing and other big employers to do business here.
Now, state government is about to close the Kingdom’s final frontier, its forests. Newly enacted Act 170, the Vermont Energy Act, can stop logging because of “rare, threatened, or endangered species, wetlands, wildlife habitat, natural communities, and forest health and sustainability.” This regulatory philosophy ended timber harvesting in the Green Mountain National Forest. Now applied to all Vermont woodlands, it essentially tells many of the Northeast Kingdom’s remaining employed loggers, “You’re fired.”
NEXT: With husband jailed, mother of three struggles to make ends meet
Bethany Knight of Glover is a former newspaper reporter, magazine editor, college journalism instructor, gubernatorial speech writer and health care executive. She co-authored five reports on Vermont issues produced by the Ethan Allen Institute, www.ethanallen.org. A licensed nursing home administrator, Knight’s books for caregivers are sold by Hartman Publishing. Her first novel, “On the Edge of Tickle,” can be found at www.smashwords.com.