Armed with some carefully crafted charts, Republican Gov. Phil Scott has claimed a significant milestone in the health of Vermont's economy. At a Wednesday press conference outside the Department of Labor building in Montpelier, he said that his "6-3-1" mantra no longer applies because the state's workforce has made a turnaround.
Scott has frequently cited "6-3-1" as a measure of Vermont's economic and social stagnation. He claimed that Vermont was losing six people from the workforce every day, there were three fewer kids in public schools every day, and one baby was born every day to an opiate-addicted mother.
Since November, Scott said, roughly 4,400 people have joined Vermont's workforce, which grew from 345,000 to 349,400. That's a 1.3 percent increase. Its size was dramatically magnified in the chart shown above, which covers an eight-month period and ranges from 344,000 to 350,000.
Scott showed a similar chart tracking the labor force participation rate, which is the percentage of working-age people who are either employed or actively looking for a job. At first glance it displays dramatic growth — but the actual increase, over the past year and a half, was from 67 percent in January 2017 to 67.6 percent now.
In reality, the growth has been real, but modest.
Both charts indicated an uptick that started around the beginning of this year. Last Friday, state economists Tom Kavet and Jeffrey Carr released their semiannual economic outlook report. They attributed Vermont's growth to two factors having nothing to do with state policy: the federal tax cuts and high deficit spending by the federal government. The tax cuts took effect on January 1, coinciding directly with the economic improvements Scott proclaimed.
When asked if he could pinpoint any positive indicators resulting from his own policies, Scott relied on generalities and anecdotal evidence.
"This is the result of a number of factors," he said, and listed holding the line on taxes and fees, efforts by administration officials and lawmakers, his strong focus on affordability, and growing confidence among businesspeople and consumers.
"Every tool in the toolbox is being utilized," Scott said. "We're seeing positive effects, but nothing we can measure so far."
Kavet and Carr's report also noted that, despite an economic recovery now in its ninth year and historically low unemployment rates, working Vermonters have failed to enjoy significant increases in wages or purchasing power. Indeed, they reported that in June, inflation-adjusted wages actually decreased slightly.
Kavet called it a "distributional issue" that has held sway for the past 35 years, with the benefits of economic growth accruing almost entirely to the wealthiest Americans. Scott was unwilling to acknowledge this apparent disconnect between prosperity and wages. Indeed, in spite of the data, he insisted that wages are on the upswing.
"Anecdotally, I would say yes," Scott said. "I've talked to business that are raising wages and benefits. I believe we'll see continued growth. We will see a natural progression of wages."
That "natural progression" hasn't happened since the early 1980s, but it's nice to know that the governor still has faith.