Steve May: The Vermont premium

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Steve May, of Richmond, who is a clinical social worker who has worked in addiction medicine for the last 15 years across multiple agencies in Vermont. He is a member of the Richmond Selectboard and was a Progressive and Democratic candidate for a House seat in 2016.

I like to think of myself as having been part of the “Flannel Diaspora.” It’s a term I’ve coined, because the phenomenon of people with Vermont ties who wish to stay here but find themselves for personnel and professional reasons needing to leave Vermont and then struggling to return deserves a name.

So … that’s the term I use to describe those of us who got somehow dispossessed. We all had hoped to make our lives and livelihoods here in Vermont, but instead wound up someplace else. Not that we wanted to … not everyone is blessed to have discovered Vermont at the same time.

In my case, I am from away, I am a Vermonter by choice. I came to Burlington in 2002 to study at UVM, eventually earning a master’s of social work. While I was a student, I met my wife, who had also come to Burlington after finishing her graduate degree. Together we decided that we very much wanted to be Vermonters by choice, purchasing a place and starting our careers. By 2009, the economy had bottomed out; our mortgage was being traded by financial institutions like it was a baseball card. Stagnant wages made it difficult to make a living. My father-in-law passed following an extended illness just about the same time. Our siblings were living in Boston. My mother-in-law was in southern New Hampshire and my folks were in Connecticut. Commitments to them dictated that we head south to Boston, but having left many friends, we were always committed that if circumstances permitted, we’d return to Vermont. We expected that we were talking about our retirements.

We never would have guessed that we would be back some five years later. What we have returned to is a place with real estate costs for renters and buyers alike that are comparable to metro Boston. Wages are stagnant, and cost of living is not. Democratic and Republican governors alike have applied austerity-like values not just to public employees but, through word and deed, have driven a chill through the entire economy. This all in spite of the fact that the job market here is among the most robust in the country. Numerous friends are taking advantage of the abundance of work available as they work 50, 60 and 70 hours at two or three jobs.

I myself am a clinical social worker. I have two master’s degrees and a bachelor’s. I am the first in my family to have graduated from college. My mom was a secretary and my stepdad worked in retail for 40 years. I have to make enough money to pay back my student debt plus all of my other living expenses. This hardly makes me unique. Social work is chronically underfunded. In spite of all this, I choose to live here. I choose to be here because I believe that the Vermont quality of life is worth the tradeoffs. I know that means I will make less as a result. In effect I am paying a premium for the privilege of living here and raising my family here. I make this choice consciously — with my eyes wide open.

Gov. Phil Scott had this fundamentally wrong in his budget address. Just because I am willing to compromise when it comes to income, do not assume that I am OK engaging in a race to the bottom. I’m not. The austerity budgets of both Govs. Shumlin and Scott set up a series of false choices for the rest of us.

An economy which simply sees labor as a cost to be contained misses the point. People are not chattel. The Vermont workforce is an asset to be maximized. Skilled workers should be rewarded for investing in themselves. Their willingness to do so returns social and fiscal dividends to the state, and to its business community. Investing in workers means investing in the communities. It means more dollars circulating through the economy, and it means workers spending, which in turn spurs more spending, which in turn results in more tax dollars to support basic services and the creation of more wealth when those dollars are spent by workers who are feeling more secure in their financial positions.

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The governor’s rhetoric about affordability rings hollow. For election cycle after election cycle, Republicans at the state and federal level have claimed to be the party of family values. One would be hard-pressed to lay eyes on much in the governor’s speech which is centered on family first initiatives. This reality is punctuated by the governor’s silence time after time on issue after issue: family leave, increasing the minimum wage, universal primary care, extending pharmacy benefits, addressing the cost of child care for Vermonters, the increasing costs of caring for our elders … The governor however did find the time to attack his political opponents (principally the NEA) under the guise of a policy speech.

Talking about affordability and discussing the choice to return to Vermont are choices which are linked. Many of us make a conscious decision to forgo bigger salaries and career advancement because we have chosen a way of life over financial gain. You can’t put a price on a life lived at a certain scale. How do you value a reality where “traffic” might mean being caught behind a combine as opposed to sitting in six lanes of highway traffic?

I am not alone and my story certainly is not unique. Throngs of displaced Vermonters would like to return to Vermont and raise their families or start a business. For some of them, that means maybe coming home — returning to be closer to aging parents or other family and friends. For others they might be faced with the opportunity to take a break from wanderlust which delivered themselves to the four corners of the world and now are ready to come back. For yet others, work opportunities led them to explore options near and far but at mid-career they have chosen the green of the mountains above all else. And then last but certainly not least, legions of fans enchanted by majestic hills and maple dreams seek their future here as Vermonters by choice, not having had the good fortune to have been born here, raised here and reared here.

Efforts to attract the Flannel Diaspora back to Vermont to live and work is not a partisan issue. Because we live here every day, we sometimes lose track of the fact that Vermont is every bit as much an idea as it is a geographic location. Be clear, for many people who make their homes outside our state, Vermont is a powerful idea. It is bigger in other people’s minds’ eye than it is in reality. Vermont is a state of being. Sometimes it is even a state of grace. It is evident that the concept of Vermont is close to the hearts of many, many people. Many of them are prepared to go to significant lengths to try and be a part of a Vermont life. Attracting those among us who have a connection to Vermont to deepen their personal and professional connections to Vermont is without question good for Vermont.

The Vermont that these people crave, the one the rest of us desperately are fighting to hang onto — that Vermont is endangered when the “race to the bottom” policies which this governor puts front and center in his budget address see the light of day. Vermont is special. It is unique because of its scale. And it is unique because neighbors are aware that they are paying for the virtue created by that scale and access. Whether we are talking about, access in the schoolhouse where small classes are understood to be essential to better learning outcomes or access in government where good government depends or vigorous personal advocacy. The governor’s vision hollows out that Vermont and exchanges it for a “big-box” like facsimile, one absent of its heart, its brain and its soul. It may be cheaper, but the cost savings come at an extraordinary price. We simply can’t afford Phil Scott’s “cheap and empty Vermont.”


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