Has Phil Scott Made Vermont More Affordable? | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Politics

Has Phil Scott Made Vermont More Affordable?

By

Gov. Phil Scott in 2017 - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODUER
  • File: Jeb Wallace-broduer
  • Gov. Phil Scott in 2017

Days before he was sworn in as Vermont's 82nd governor, Phil Scott considered for a moment the pledge that had defined his rise to power. For years, the Berlin Republican had been promising to make Vermont more affordable — but what exactly did he mean when he invoked the state's "crisis of affordability," and how did he intend to solve it?

"It's clearly difficult to define the term in a sentence or two, because it does mean different things to different people," Scott said in a January 2017 interview in his Montpelier transition offices, just down the street from the Statehouse.

Indeed, as omnipresent as "affordability" had become in Vermont's political discourse, there was — and remains — no clear consensus around how precisely to measure it. How then, Seven Days asked at the time, should Scott be judged on whether he had delivered on his central campaign pledge?

"I think voters will decide that," the governor-elect said.

In the coming weeks, Vermonters will have the opportunity to do just that. As Scott seeks a third two-year term, he faces a Progressive/Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who holds starkly different economic views and who argues that the governor has failed to make the state more affordable for working-class Vermonters.

"I think it's important for folks to think about: Are they better off today than they were four years ago?" Zuckerman said at a debate last week. "Is Vermont more affordable? Are your wages higher, or could they have been yet higher?"

Complicating these questions is the deadly pandemic that, over the past six months, has upended the state's economy and undermined the financial security of its residents. Though Scott has earned high marks for his handling of the public health crisis, he readily admits that — due to circumstances outside of his control — many Vermonters are doing worse now than they were four years ago.

"When I became governor, my hope was that when I left office I would leave Vermont in a better shape than when I found it," Scott said at a debate last month. "Then along came COVID-19 and a once-in-a-century health and economic crisis with it, which eroded many of the gains we'd made over the last three years."

At times during this muted gubernatorial campaign, it has sounded quaint or even discordant to hear the candidates relitigate pre-pandemic disputes. In an era of breadlines and bankruptcies, who cares about Scott's 2017 budget vetoes?

But the person voters choose to lead the state for the next two years is likely to face nearly unprecedented economic challenges, and the policies they proffer could have an enduring influence on the state's affordability — however it's defined. How better to anticipate the course they will chart than to examine the approach that has steered them thus far?

As he's campaigned for reelection, Scott has spoken less in recent months about affordability and more about consistency. In turbulent times, he has argued, Vermonters need a "steady hand on the wheel." But in an interview late last month, the governor said he was no less focused on addressing the state's "crisis of affordability" and still intends to leave Vermonters more financially secure than they were when he took office.

"People know and have come to trust that I'm making good on what I said I would do," he said. "And I will continue to fight for them and for the economy of the state."

Is it a thing?

Tom Kavet, the legislature's chief economist, doesn't think much of the term "affordability."

"I think it's a good sound bite in the political sphere," he said. But, he added, "There's no prescriptive definition of affordability in economics."

While most politicians seem to agree that it represents the relative amount of one's income and expenses, they often diverge over which side of the ledger deserves their attention.

"I think we all want Vermonters to keep more of what they earn," Scott said. "We just have a different method of doing it." In his view, the key is to restrain the growth of government and the taxes that fund it. In Zuckerman's, it's to raise wages and provide new economic safety nets.

Even four years into his governorship, Scott continues to paint the state as hostile to taxpayers and businesses, comparing it unfavorably to neighboring New Hampshire. "Statistics will show that we're one of the highest-taxed states in the nation," he said.

That's true if you simply divide total tax collections by the number of residents. But that approach obscures the nuances of state tax policy — and the actual amount typical taxpayers fork over.

According to the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, Vermont has one of the most progressive, or equitable, tax systems in the country. In 2018, the institute found, the poorest 20 percent of Vermonters spent 8.7 percent of their income on state and local taxes; in New Hampshire, the same group paid 9.1 percent. The wealthiest 1 percent of Vermonters, meanwhile, devoted 10.4 percent of their income to state and local taxes, while their counterparts in New Hampshire were on the hook for just 3 percent.

election1-6-6cf3a1d8ceb9e7f6.png

"Affordability has become one of those buzzwords that is used by many to lead into a discussion about very predictable issues: 'It's unaffordable. We have to cut taxes,'" said state Auditor Doug Hoffer, a Democrat/Progressive. "But for people at the low end, taxes are not a big deal at all." The actual cost drivers, he maintains, are housing, health care and — for those with young kids — childcare. "Those are the things I wish we had more conversation about," Hoffer said.

The real threat to affordability, according to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) is the slow growth of wages, the rise in income inequality and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. "What we are seeing overall in Vermont and nationwide is that people who have more are getting more, and that gap is widening and growing," she said.

A recent study by the RAND Corporation found that if income distribution had remained steady since 1975, the median full-time worker in Vermont would have earned $108,000 in 2018, rather than the $60,000 that worker actually made.

Jack Hoffman, senior policy analyst at the Montpelier-based Public Assets Institute, points to the discrepancy between prices and wages in Vermont to explain why many find the state unaffordable. In 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the price of a broad range of goods was just 3 percent higher in Vermont than the national average. At the same time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, wages in the state were nearly 17 percent lower than the national average."The key is that people need more money in their pockets," Hoffman said.

election1-5-a83db3e065ccfa1a.png

The coronavirus pandemic has almost certainly exacerbated income inequality, according to Kavet. Vermont has already benefited from a "staggering" $3.5 billion in federal aid, he said, "but a lot of that money went to the wealthiest people in society."

The stock market is surging, real estate prices are up, and luxury goods are in demand. Meanwhile, according to weekly surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau, more than one in five Vermont adults live in households where the pandemic has made it difficult to pay for ordinary expenses, and nearly one in four live in households where eviction or foreclosure appears likely in the next two months.

The pandemic has also illustrated both the power and powerlessness of any governor. It seems likely that Scott's successful response to the public health crisis has averted even greater financial calamity. It's also true that, after benefiting for three years from a roaring national economy, he has been stymied by a global health crisis and an inept federal response. Whether state budget cuts or tax hikes will be necessary next year has far less to do with any decision the next governor makes than whether the next Congress and president approve another round of aid to the states.

"No governor wants to admit this, but they have very few meaningful tools that produce short-term benefits to the economy," Hoffer said. "There are so many ways the federal government can prime the pump. States can't do that."

According to Zuckerman, a governor can only do so much to address the challenges that make the state feel unaffordable.

"This is a nationwide problem," the lieutenant governor said, calling it the inevitable consequence of trickle-down economic policies popularized by president Ronald Reagan. "I think sometimes we hyper-focus on Vermont as if the struggles are unique, and it's then defined by people, like our governor, that it's government that's the problem. And I just think that's an exploitation of people's struggle for political purposes."

Inaction hero

Sarah Fisher Snow and Tony Snow at their home in Berlin - JEB WALLACE-BRODUER
  • Jeb Wallace-broduer
  • Sarah Fisher Snow and Tony Snow at their home in Berlin

Scott and his allies are quick to highlight the initiatives he has championed to make Vermont more affordable: a major housing bond, increased childcare subsidies and a slate of income tax reforms.

The governor's opponents, on the other hand, tend to focus on the proposals he has stymied. In four years, Scott has already vetoed 20 bills. That's only one fewer than the record holder, former governor Howard Dean, issued during nearly a dozen years in office.

Democrats and Progressives appear particularly aggrieved by Scott's decision to veto bills establishing a paid family leave program and raising the minimum wage — initiatives they believe would make Vermont more affordable. (After the governor in February vetoed a second, more modest minimum wage bill that would raise the rate from $10.96 to $12.55 over the next two years, the legislature successfully overrode the veto.)

As lawmakers debated the paid leave bill last year, Sarah Fisher Snow began discussing with her husband, Tony Snow, the possibility of having a baby. "We were really excited," the 33-year-old Berlin resident said. "We really thought that would make a big impact on our ability to start a family."

As educators with student loans, property taxes and a mortgage to pay, there wasn't much give in their budget. "Right now, we could not live on our savings for three months while one or both of us stay home with a baby," Fisher Snow said. "It's just not possible."

The legislation, H.107, would have provided 12 weeks of paid leave to new parents or eight weeks to those caring for a seriously ill family member. It also would have established a voluntary program providing six weeks of medical leave to those addressing their own illness.

After Scott vetoed the bill, the Snows decided to put off having children. "If it means delaying a year or two to see how things play out, then I think that's the direction we're going in right now," she said.

In his veto message, the governor cited the 0.2 percent payroll tax that would have funded the $30 million program. "We cannot continue to make the state less affordable for working Vermonters and more difficult for employers to employ them — even for well-intentioned programs like this one," he wrote.

According to Speaker Johnson, Scott had it backward. "For the governor, it wasn't affordable because it had a very small tax in it that was shared across all Vermonters," she said. "For me, that was a critical step to affordability for the many, many Vermonters who cannot afford a $500 emergency."

Scott clearly takes pride in serving as a check on Democratic and Progressive lawmakers. In a perfect world, the governor said, he would have done more to reduce the tax burden Vermonters face. "But, unfortunately, I haven't had a willing partner in the legislature, so I've had to play the prevention role," he said.

When it comes to making the state more affordable, Scott argued, legislators tend to take the easy way out. "It's very difficult finding efficiencies and putting into place strategies to live within your means," he said. "From a practical standpoint, it's just easier to raise a tax to pay for it."

Rob Roper, president of the conservative Ethan Allen Institute, credits Scott with slowing the growth of government. "I think he's done as good a job as he can putting brakes on the legislature," said Roper, a former chair of the Vermont Republican Party. "If I were in his place, might I be a bit more bold? Easy for me to say, because I don't have to face the voters."

Fisher Snow has never before voted for Scott, she said, and her views generally align with Zuckerman's. But even though the governor vetoed the paid leave bill she was counting on, Fisher Snow is leaning toward voting for him this fall.

"He's doing his best to balance health and safety with the economy," she said, referring to his response to the pandemic. "I think right now Phil Scott might be the steady leader that Vermont needs." She added, "Probably not in two years after that."

Tax man

Arnela Lander was tired of Chittenden County's high rental rates and was looking for a safe community in which to raise her two kids. "We wanted to be a little more established and drop our roots," she said.

So three years ago, the 28-year-old insurance agent and her husband, a mechanic, bought a three-bedroom converted farmhouse in Vergennes. "We were expecting it to be affordable," she said. "But the taxes are just ridiculous."

Even though the family's income entitles them to a break on their property tax bill, the couple still pays roughly $5,000 a year. That has Lander pondering whether to leave Vermont, as many of her friends have. "If we could afford it — if the taxes weren't so crazy — I would absolutely stay here," she said.

Stories like Lander's have animated Scott for years. In his view, a high tax burden pushes families like hers out of state, further diminishing Vermont's labor force and tax base, which in turn prompts lawmakers to raise taxes even higher.

To slow that cycle, Scott has attempted — with partial success — to hold state budget growth to a six-year rolling average of wage growth. "We've been very disciplined in living within our means, which for us means not having to raise taxes or fees to afford the services that we need to deliver and the programs that we provide as government," said Secretary of Administration Susanne Young.

The governor has also succeeded at trimming several taxes, including those targeting Social Security benefits, estates and the sale of land. At the same time, despite previously pledging to avoid raising new revenue, Scott did in his second term propose and sign into law taxes on e-cigarettes and online sales.

Perhaps the most significant changes to Vermont's tax code during Scott's tenure came after Congress approved President Donald Trump's tax overhaul in December 2017. The federal legislation would have resulted in Vermont collecting $30 million more from its residents, but the Scott administration worked with the legislature to redistribute the revenue in the form of tax breaks. Among other things, the state plan cut income tax rates across the board by 0.2 percent and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is generally viewed as a highly effective anti-poverty measure.

According to Deputy Tax Commissioner Doug Farnham, the package "made Vermont just a little more affordable for low- and moderate-income Vermonters."

The governor and legislature have not seen eye to eye on the property tax, which helps pay for K-12 schools and which Scott views as the greatest obstacle to affordability. During his first term, he repeatedly vetoed budgets in an effort to forestall rate increases, and he now claims to have averted tens of millions of dollars' worth of property tax hikes.

But in what Johnson calls "a sleight of hand," Scott has also attempted to fund childcare, higher education and corrections programs through the education fund, which would only put more pressure on property taxes. "Consistently, the administration has made recommendations that would actually increase property taxes, not reduce them," said Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais), who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

Whether Vermont's tax burden is really driving residents to flee the state is a matter of some dispute. According to Kavet, state taxes are "such a minor determinant" of where people choose to live.

He points to the relatively prosperous community of Norwich, which is separated from Hanover, N.H., only by the Connecticut River. "Why doesn't everybody move to the other side of the river if it's so dramatically better and advantageous?" Kavet asked.

Even Scott's own tax commissioner, Craig Bolio, sounds skeptical that working-class Vermonters are better off elsewhere.

"I think if you are lower- or middle-income, Vermont is relatively competitive," he said. "Vermont has a very progressive tax system, so if you're in the higher end, that's where you find interstate competitiveness issues."

Market failure

For many Vermonters, the cost of housing dwarfs all other expenses — and too many are paying too much for a place to live.

According to a February report commissioned by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, 36 percent of Vermont families are cost-burdened by housing. That is, they spend more than 30 percent of their income on shelter. A full 16 percent spend more than half their income on it.

To afford a two-bedroom apartment at the fair-market rent of $1,215 a month, a Vermonter would have to make $23.36 per hour, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In Chittenden County, the epicenter of the state's housing crunch, one would have to make $30.25.

Rising rents have pushed Suzanna Levine and her family to the hinterland of Huntington, a 30-minute drive from her job in Williston and her son's daycare in Shelburne. The 27-year-old social worker and her husband, a property manager, can afford the $1,250 rent they pay for a two-bedroom house, but the $1,000 they pay for childcare puts them close to the edge.

"It drains my bank account," she said. "The way we're doing this right now — it's not a really good long-term solution."

Levine would like to buy a home, but given the amount of student loans she and her husband have accrued, they don't qualify for a mortgage.

According to Housing Commissioner Josh Hanford, Vermont doesn't have just one housing problem; it has two. In Chittenden County and its neighboring regions, there simply aren't enough places to live. Elsewhere in the state — particularly in aging downtowns such as Springfield, Rutland and St. Johnsbury — there's plenty of housing, but it's in exceedingly poor condition. "So the problem is very different from county to county," he said.

Overall, according to Hanford, "Our new housing production is not keeping up with the loss of existing housing stock on a yearly basis." The shortage is particularly acute in what he refers to as "the missing middle."

"The market doesn't work for that housing because there aren't these public incentives to build them, and the margins for contractors to build them really aren't there," Hanford said. "It's really a market failure."

Not long after taking office, Scott sought to alleviate the shortage by working with the legislature to issue $37 million worth of housing bonds. The initiative front-loaded funding to support the construction of 850 affordable homes in three years, and it indirectly supported the construction of another 300 market-rate homes.

But that has hardly alleviated the demand for housing. Even before the pandemic prompted a run on Vermont real estate, Hanford's department estimated that the state needed 5,800 units by 2025.

"Is housing more affordable today?" asked Chris Donnelly, director of community relations for Champlain Housing Trust. "It's not, even though we spent $37 million to create housing. That was just helping us dig out of a big, big hole."

Though the housing bond initiative found broad support in the legislature, some question its long-term implications. It will be financed for 20 years by $2.5 million in annual revenue from the property transfer tax, which would otherwise fund housing on a year-to-year basis. "It's robbing Peter to pay Paul," Zuckerman said.

The lieutenant governor has proposed rolling back the Trump tax cuts for the highest-income Vermonters and devoting a portion of that revenue, $20 million, to housing each year. To capitalize on the influx of pandemic refugees, he would also add another property transfer tax on homes worth more than $700,000.

If anything, according to those who work in the field, COVID-19 exacerbated and illuminated Vermont's housing problem. "When the governor says 'Stay Home, Stay Safe,' — for folks who don't have an affordable place, they just can't do that," Hanford said.

Federal aid helped alleviate some of the most immediate crises: The state spent $25 million of its Coronavirus Relief Fund appropriation on back rent to prevent evictions, $16 million to put up homeless Vermonters in motels, and $5 million to cover mortgage and property tax payments.

The aid also enabled the state to address the underlying problem. Lawmakers directed $33 million to quickly build new housing for the homeless and $6 million to rehabilitate aging housing stock.

"I am very optimistic about all of the work within the housing field since the pandemic," Hanford said. "We can do this and make a real difference."

Care package

Danielle Hume with her children Skylar (left) and Corbin Houghton - ADAM LUKOWSK
  • Adam Lukowsk
  • Danielle Hume with her children Skylar (left) and Corbin Houghton

Amber Bollman realized she needed to make a change when her car broke down and she couldn't afford the $5,000 repair bill. She had been working as a childcare provider for years but couldn't earn a livable wage, so she decided to start her own program in her Burke home.

Now, the 32-year-old mother of three looks after 10 children and is already booking slots for 2021. "We're thriving," she said.

Bollman credits Scott and the legislature for adding $7.4 million last year to the state's Child Care Financial Assistance Program, which increased subsidies to low-income parents and added to the number of families who could participate.

When Bollman learned that the program would be expanded, she contacted a client, Danielle Hume. "She said, 'You might be eligible for this now. You should look into this,'" Hume recalled. "But we were still just over the line."

Hume, the 32-year-old director of an AmeriCorps program, lives in the tiny Northeast Kingdom town of Kirby with her partner, who works in manufacturing, and their two children. They make enough money to pay the mortgage on their 940-square-foot home and to sock away a little for retirement. But without a state subsidy, they cannot afford full-time childcare for their 4-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter, so they send their kids to Bollman just three days a week — and to nearby grandparents for two.

Amber Bollman - ADAM LUKOWSKI
  • Adam Lukowski
  • Amber Bollman

"It's always on my mind about the bills being due and the fact that childcare costs us more than our mortgage does," Hume said. "We get by and we're OK, but we certainly don't make enough money to be well off."

According to Aly Richards, CEO of the childcare advocacy group Let's Grow Kids, last year's infusion of cash into state subsidies was "historic," but it doesn't come close to meeting the need. "That was a baby step," she said. "That was a dress rehearsal."

Even before COVID-19 shuttered childcare centers for months this spring, 65 percent of infants and toddlers and 23 percent of preschoolers did not have access to regulated childcare programs, according to a 2019 report from the nonprofit Building Bright Futures.

Scott has proposed additional funding increases for childcare subsidies, but he often employs the traditional gubernatorial tactic of attaching the money to revenue schemes he knows the legislature won't embrace, such as legalizing and taxing keno gambling.

"This administration has been kind of savvy about saying they're addressing a number of related issues — housing, childcare — but they devote very little resources to it," said Hoffer, the state auditor. "So that enables them to say, 'We're working on it, but there's not a lot of money available right now.'"

Richards praises Scott and the legislature for propping up childcare providers at the height of the pandemic, arguing that Vermont did more for the sector than any other state. "We basically prevented the total collapse of this industry in Vermont," she said.

Now Richards is hoping the state will continue to make it a priority. "When you actually get something like childcare right, it's so foundational that it has an outsize impact on affordability," she said.

Increased assistance would certainly make Vermont more affordable for Hume. "My partner and I feel very proud that we're able to be successful without qualifying for or needing any subsidies," she said. "However, things would be a whole lot easier if we were eligible."

Premium problem

If there's one piece of the affordability puzzle that Scott has conspicuously avoided, it's the ever-increasing cost of health care. That's surprising given that — along with housing, childcare, food and transportation — it ranks as one of the largest expenses borne by a typical low-income family, according to the legislature's Joint Fiscal Office.

Scott's reluctance to engage on the subject could be a consequence of the political pitfalls his predecessor, former governor Peter Shumlin, faced after overpromising and underdelivering on health care reform. When Scott first campaigned for governor in 2016, he made clear he would not make the same mistake.

Rep. Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg), who chairs the House Health Care Committee, defends the governor's relative inaction, arguing that the state has been preoccupied with warding off Trump's attacks on the Affordable Care Act. "I don't think there's too much any administration could be doing right now to really, substantially impact health care in the way that Vermonters deserve to have it addressed," he said.

Throughout his tenure, Scott has served as a seemingly reluctant steward of the all-payer model, a six-year experiment Shumlin initiated to tie health care payments to patient outcomes. The federal-state partnership enables Medicare, Medicaid and commercial insurers to move away from a fee-for-service system and pay providers for the patients they treat, not the procedures they undertake.

The effort hasn't yet proven successful. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a warning last month that OneCare Vermont, the accountable care organization that administers the program, served only 30 percent of the patients it should have in its first two years. The Scott administration has promised an overhaul.

Meanwhile, the cost of health insurance continues to rise. In a July filing with the Green Mountain Care Board, the Office of the Health Care Advocate found that premium rates for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont's individual and small group plan had grown by nearly 46 percent from 2014 through 2019, while wages had grown by just 7 percent. The insurance company was seeking another 6.3 percent rate increase — even as its customers were grappling with the economic impact of COVID-19.

"It's just stark," said chief health care advocate Mike Fisher. "We aren't keeping pace."

In recent years, the number of uninsured Vermonters dropped from 8 percent to 3 percent, according to a 2018 survey by the Vermont Department of Health — likely due to the increased access to health insurance made possible by the federal Affordable Care Act. But the number of underinsured Vermonters, whose policies do not sufficiently cover their medical costs, has grown to 36 percent.

According to Fisher, Scott's team has "put a lot of their eggs in the all-payer ACO model" and failed to advance other ideas. "I have not seen real efforts by the administration or the legislature, for that matter, to address the very real affordability challenges that we see playing out," he said.

Asked at a debate last week what he would "actually do to address the cost of health insurance for the working class," Scott deflected, noting that costs are high throughout the country. "A lot of people have tried to address those concerns," he said.

The only solution, the governor suggested, was a demographic one. "At the end of the day, what we need is more people. We have too few people paying in this state," he said. "That, in itself — a younger, healthier population — will help the state lower the cost of health care."

The issue is more than academic for Kent Scrivener, a 61-year-old man who recently moved from Fairfax to Jericho. Last summer, after getting a second part-time job and a slight bump in his income, Scrivener no longer qualified for Medicaid. He briefly signed up for a high-deductible plan from Blue Cross Blue Shield but let it lapse because the cost was too high and the coverage poor.

In May, Scrivener tripped over an extension cord at home, injured his rotator cuff and broke his arm. A bacterial infection exacerbated the problem, and his arm remains in a splint. Scrivener quickly racked up tens of thousands of dollars' worth of bills and hasn't been able to return to work.

According to Scrivener, Vermont's health insurance system works fine for those at the top and the bottom of the income ladder. "The people that are caught in the middle are the people that work a lot, work hard, make decent amounts of money but can't afford health insurance because they're trying to pay their bills, trying to keep food on the table and trying to pay their mortgage," he said.

Scrivener, who has lived in 16 states, says he doesn't see Vermont as particularly expensive. He just thinks wages are too low.

As for Scott? "I think he really cares about people," Scrivener said. "As far as affordability, I presume he's doing the best he can."

Stay or go?

Nearly four years into his tenure, Scott still seems unsure how to define his original campaign pledge. Asked last month whether Vermont is more affordable now than when he took office, the governor said, "It depends, really, on how you measure that."

He then provided two seemingly contradictory answers. While he may not have made the state more affordable, the governor said at first, he had prevented the legislature from making it less so. "I would say that we've changed the trajectory dramatically," he said. "We've leveled it off. We've been able to take a breather."

Then, citing metrics his administration has come up with, Scott argued that, in fact, the percentage of Vermonters' paychecks devoted to housing, health care and taxes had actually declined under his watch — at least, prior to the pandemic. "If you look at the years of Shumlin, for instance, all those costs were higher than after I took office," Scott said.

Hoffer, the state auditor, takes issue with the administration's methodology, which only considers out-of-pocket health care costs — and does not take into account childcare, transportation or food costs. Kavet, the legislature's economist, notes that "averages can be very misleading."

"You can have a lot of people at the lower end that are really hurting and others doing really well at the high end, and the average looks just fine," he said.

Such disparities have only been heightened by the lingering effects of COVID-19. Even as wealthy pandemic refugees snatch up homes throughout the state, many Vermonters remain unemployed and hungry.

"People have no cushion left," said John Sayles, CEO of the Vermont Foodbank. "And even if COVID were to go away and the economy were to turn around tomorrow, it's going to take a long time for people to build that cushion up."

And yet, the pandemic appears to have made at least some Vermonters more optimistic about the future of their state.

In a poll conducted last summer for Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS, only 35 percent of those surveyed said they would advise an 18-year-old to remain in the state to "build a successful life and career," while 49 percent said they would recommend leaving.

Asked the same question last month, 47 percent said they'd advise staying, while only 36 percent would recommend leaving.

According to Kavet, people have long chosen to live in Vermont with the understanding that they would earn less than they would elsewhere. "There's something about the quality of life that makes it attractive," he said. "And that's really real."

The manner in which Vermonters have responded to COVID-19 — and the resulting public health outcomes — has made the state even more attractive, Kavet believes. "Those are intangibles that are really hard to capture in monetary terms," he said.

Those hoping to avoid the worst of the pandemic, it seems, can't afford to leave.