Media Highlights

Opportunity Knocks in the Green Mountain State

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Jon Margolis, columnist 

We’re No. 1.

Vermont, that is.

We’re the top state when it comes to opportunity, or at least to equality of opportunity.

So says a new report that studied every state, and almost every county’s economic vigor, educational opportunity, and “community health and civic life.”

The report’s authors acknowledged that equality – including equality of opportunity – has diminished all over the country for decades. So being No. 1 may not be that much of a distinction.

But according to this study, a Vermont child is more likely to be enrolled in preschool classes, a Vermont young adult is less likely to be both out of school and out of work, and a Vermonter of any age is more likely to have easy access to a grocery store, a bank, and a doctor, than his or her counterpart in almost any other state.

In the grades the authors gave the states, Vermont leads with a score of 69.5 (out of 100), five points ahead of No. 2 Minnesota, and more than 30 points in front of last-place Nevada.

Big deal. It’s another one of those reports in which Vermont is so often coming in first, second or third.

Except when it comes 48th, 49th, or 50th. It often depends on the political outlook of whoever is doing the study. One of life’s enduring rules is that every study reaches the conclusion the studier wished to reach before gathering his or her first sliver of datum.

This study is known as the Opportunity Index, which calls itself “the nation’s first – and only – tool designed to provide a snapshot of what opportunity looks like at the state and county levels.”

The index was jointly created by an organization known as Opportunity Nation and by Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, based in New York. The political outlook, then, is without doubt somewhat left of center, and the prudent observer will bear that in mind in digesting the report’s conclusions.

But the facts and figures come from official government sources, the Social Science Research Council is a respected scholarly organization, and the “factors of opportunity” on which the conclusions are based – economic vigor, education, the strength of local communities – are the right ones.

It is only in the area of community that Vermont scores ahead of all the other states, and it is way ahead, with a score of 74.88. Minnesota is second, at 66.35 and Nebraska third at 66.07. In education, Vermont’s score of 62.46 is exceeded only by New Jersey’s 63.39. Vermont’s economic score of 60.29 was behind North Dakota’s (64.86), Nebraska’s (61.51), and South Dakota’s (61.21)

This study evaluates economic strength unconventionally. In addition to the standard measurements of unemployment rate and median income, it includes the poverty rate, the state’s level of inequality, the availability of affordable housing, and the extent of Internet access.

And it ignores the rate of economic growth, where Vermont is not No. 1.

But it’s not bad, either. According to a recent report by Bloomberg News, Vermont’s Gross Domestic Product grew by 5.01 percent from 2008 to 2012, the 15th fastest growth rate in the country, and 10th among states that do not sit atop rich oil, coal, or gas deposits.

And the Opportunity Index report notes that while Vermont’s per household median income is not the highest (its $51,162 is well behind Maryland’s $67,863) Vermont’s household income grew faster than any other state’s between 2011 and 2012.

Considering that in the whole country, household income went down in 2012, and remains 8.3 percent lower than it was in 2007, Vermont’s economy would seem relatively healthy.

One finding that might surprise some Vermonters – who hear advocates regularly bemoan a “crisis” in affordable housing – is that housing is just about as affordable here as in most of the rest of the country. The study shows that 61.8 percent of Vermonters spend less than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, very close to the national average of 62.2 percent.

This does not mean there is no affordable housing problem. It means that almost 40 percent of Americans are paying more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing, often quite a bit more. That is a problem, But it does indicate that there is little or nothing peculiar to Vermont that limits the supply of affordable housing.

And then consider all the data. Is the real problem that houses are too expensive? Or is it that wages are too low?

The scholars who undertook this study do not appear stuck in ivory towers. Many of their criteria are quite down to earth. For instance, one criterion for judging community health and civic life is the convenience of buying food. Here Vermont kicks butt, with four grocery stores or produce vendors per 10,000 people, almost twice the 2.2 nationwide.

And the state has more banking institutions (5.45 per 10,000 folks) than do most Americans (3.98).

Not surprisingly, equal opportunity is not equally distributed throughout the state. Chittenden County scores highest. Its numerical score of 68.97 – well above the national average of 50.9 – earns it a letter grade of A from the study.

Only 10 cities or counties around the country had higher scores than Chittenden, and three of them were tiny rural counties in Kansas and North Dakota. The highest score – 81.73 – was won by Falls Church City in the affluent Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. The only Eastern counties that finished ahead of Chittenden were Fairfax in Virginia, Dukes County on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, and Nassau County on New York’s Long Island.

In fact, only one Vermont county – Essex County in the Northeast Kingdom – scored below the study’s national average, and it wasn’t all that far below. Essex got a score of 48.18. Its score on economic criteria was only a few points below the national average and its education score was even with the national average. The county was weakest where the state as a whole was strongest – in the area of community health and civic life. There Essex got a score of 49.6, more than four points below the national average and 55 points less than the state total.

Essex is the poorest county in the state. Its main deficiency in the study was that it has only 77.41 primary care providers per 10,000 people, well below the national rate of 117.9 and even farther below the 187.7 providers statewide.

In the study, Addison, Grand Isle, Washington and Windsor counties earned a B plus grade. Bennington, Rutland, Windham and Lamoille counties got a B. Caledonia, Franklin, Orange and Orleans counties earned B minus grades.


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