Everyone loves to grouse about our cost of living. Bruce Post wonders: How bad is it really?
Brave Little State is VPR’s people-powered journalism project. We answer questions about Vermont that have been submitted, and voted on, by you, our audience — because we think our journalism is better when you’re a part of it.
Cymone Haiju and her husband Rabin are one of those couples that makes plans. They’ve been living in Atlanta, Georgia, but they’re now doing something that they’ve been scheming for years. They’re moving to Vermont.
“Well, actually, moving to Vermont has sort of been part of our five-year plan,” says Cymone. “We, in our first year of marriage, kept going back and forth about several different state options to ultimately settle in. We just wanted to live closer to the land — and be a part of our community, too.”
The Haijus chose Vermont because there’s a particular kind of house they want to build.
“We want to build an off-the-grid forever home. It’s called an ‘earth ship.’ It’s a self-sustainable home that receives and processes energy passively and grows its own food, collects its water.”
“Especially considering all the things that have happened recently in the world, we thought we need to be independent and not relying on the grid,” Rabin adds.
So that’s the housing plan, long-term. The couple has started by renting, so they can save up for land, and the earth ship. The employment plan started to come together when Cymone got a planning job for the town of Milton.
Rabin is a math and science teacher, but he didn’t have a job yet. So he posted some questions on the website reddit, on a topical page — called a subreddit — all about Vermont:
“I was looking to get feedback from people regarding teaching jobs in Vermont, and any other feedback regarding moving and living in Vermont.”
A bunch of people replied with helpful feedback on the teaching front. But also warnings — about how expensive it is to live here. Especially for renting around Burlington.
“We also saw that the food costs there are also a little higher than where we are,” Rabin says. “Also, a lot of people in the reddit post commented about looking out for the internet. Because not all of Vermont has internet or high-speed internet, and that can also add to the costs.”
“I hear so many comments about how expensive Vermont is,” says Bruce Post of Essex.
Bruce first came to Vermont in the 1960s, for college at Norwich University. He went on to a long career in public service — on Capitol Hill, and in Montpelier. Now he’s retired. And he’s wondering about this whole “Vermont is so expensive” narrative. It goes beyond reddit, of course.
“I hear people make complaints. And because I was a planner and I also wrote legislation federally, I say, ‘OK, I'm not going to deal with the superficialities, I want to get beneath the superficial,’” Bruce says. “And so that’s why I asked my question.”
His winning question voted on by you, our Brave Little State audience, which was this:
“I’ve always heard the litany that Vermont is so expensive. I’m wondering, is that true? And how do we compare to other states?”
He says taxation gets all the attention. But: “What about cable costs? What about food costs? So you hear all these things anecdotally, but I’ve never spent any time measuring them, and I’d like to know.”
Turns out, some of these measures are surprisingly elusive, even before you account for a pandemic.
Rabin and Cymone, the future Vermonters from Atlanta, eventually lined up a studio apartment right in the heart of Burlington for June 1. Smaller than their place in Atlanta, and a bit more expensive.
Our question-asker Bruce is familiar with this phenomenon: “Our daughter … she lives in Somerville, Mass., and she says in a way, rents in the Chittenden County, the Burlington area, are as expensive as they are in the Boston area. So what is the scoop?”
This particular scoop is actually in one of our previous episodes, all about Vermont’s housing crunch. (Short version: Chittenden County is quite expensive — and about a third of all Vermonters are what’s called “cost-burdened” when it comes to housing.)
We’ve also got a past episode about Vermont’s utility costs, which are super complicated. Take a listen.
As for other parts of Vermonters’ budgets, here’s what we can say.
Groceries: This is a thing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Vermonters spent more on groceries than any other state in 2018, the most recent year the data is available. The technical category is “food and beverages purchased for off-premises consumption” and we spent about $4,700 per capita. New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts were all in the top 10.
Gas: This is somewhat of a thing. Prices here aren’t the highest, but they’re not the lowest, either. According to AAA, Vermont generally falls among the top 20 to 25 states for what you pay at the pump. So, basically middle of the pack.
Internet: Very much a thing.
“So we tend to say, ‘How much of a given area has access to the internet, just from a hardware perspective?’ And that number for Vermont is 79%,” says Tyler Cooper.
Cooper is the editor-in-chief for BroadbandNow, which researches internet access in the U.S. — where you can get it, and for what price. Their benchmark for affordable service is $60 per month.
“And the sort of disappointing news, I suppose, for Vermont, is that actually, currently only 1.1% of residents have access to a plan that costs less than that $60 a month,” Cooper says.
OK, that sounds bad. But maybe there are lots of states with these numbers?
“There are not,” Cooper says. “So, we actually rank states using a proprietary mix of average speed test information, access to what we call ‘low-price’ plans, and terrestrial access from a hardware perspective. And Vermont, currently on that list for 2020, ranks number 47 out of 50.”
Now, it’s one thing to look at these cost measures one by one. But what about the sum of all parts?
For that, question-asker Bruce and I hop on a Zoom call with three members of Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Office, which provides non-partisan financial analysis to our state legislators. Bruce joined all the Zoom interviews for this episode. This is what people-powered journalism looks like.
Every other year, Joint Fiscal publishes something called the Vermont Basic Needs Budgets and Livable Wage Report.
“It shows what’s called a ‘basic needs budget’ for multiple family configurations based on the best data we can find at this point,” says fiscal analyst Daniel Dickerson. “It includes the cost of housing, the cost of food, health care [and more].”
Add all those up, and you get hypothetical totals for different profiles of Vermonters. For example, say you’re a married couple, both working, with two kids, living in a rural part of the state. This report concludes that it’ll take about $85,000 to meet your basic needs. That number might sound surprisingly high — after all, Vermont’s median household income is about $60,000. According to the report, Vermont’s minimum wage doesn’t even come close to covering the cost of living here.
But the Joint Fiscal folks had some huge disclaimers about their work. For example, they’re not even that confident in the numbers they’re working with. Senior fiscal analyst Nolan Langweil says this about health care:
“When you try to figure out, what are people’s out-of-pocket expenses, you know, what are their deductibles — and we don’t have any good data on that. The state doesn’t collect it, and the federal levels don’t collect it.:
“We would love to have better data on what it does cost to live in Vermont,” adds senior economist Joyce Manchester. “But those data do not exist. It’s very difficult to get representative data according to where you fall on the income scale.”
“I appreciate the dilemma you’re in,” says question-asker Bruce. “And Joyce, where would you get that data? Does Vermont not do a good job? Is there no appreciation of collecting that data statewide?”
“So, it would be extremely expensive to set up a new survey for the state of Vermont, and I’m not sure that we have the expertise to do that,” Manchester replies.
There’s something else that Joyce Manchester and her colleagues say is missing from the report. All the assistance that the state offers to low- and middle-income Vermonters.
“That’s not figured into this budget. And I think that means that a lot of people have the wrong impression of what it costs to live in Vermont,” Manchester says.
In other words, their budget estimates what Vermonters would pay without things like child care credits, food stamps, and property tax assistance, which is available for households making up to $137,500 a year.
“So, you occasionally hear someone talking on the radio, saying, well the Joint Fiscal Office says that the livable wage, the amount that I have to earn in order to live a life in Vermont, is X. And in fact, I’m earning much less than X, so clearly I can’t make it in Vermont,” Manchester says. “But again, if you are able to apply and be eligible for a number of programs that are specifically targeted at helping lower-income or moderate-income families, then yes you can afford to live in Vermont.”
So far we’ve talked about the costs associated with living in Vermont. But what you pay for stuff is just one part of the financial equation. Another big one, of course, is what you make.
“One of the biggest factors that we’ve been looking at over the past couple years is that wages are really the problem, more than the price of things,” says Stephanie Yu, deputy director of the nonprofit Public Assets Institute.
“Wages are the problem. Vermont has relatively low wages; we rank about 38th in average wages across the states, and across the New England states, we’re really on the low side of wages. And the growth has been really slow,” Yu says.
Another part of the equation, Yu says, is what Vermont provides for its residents.
“You know … What services are we getting? And I think there’s certainly room for improvement, but there are some services that we get that are pretty important. Universal pre-K was a big one. The low rate of uninsured,” Yu says. “So I think this issue of what services are provided by the state is really an important part of this question of, is Vermont a good deal for people?”
This gets back to the state programs that we were talking about earlier. And it brings us to perhaps the most controversial aspect of Vermont’s cost of living: Taxes, which help fund these programs.
“One of the things that I think is sort of a misconception that people have is this concept that Vermont is a high-tax state. But that’s really not true for low- and middle-income Vermonters,” Yu says. “In fact, Vermont’s a pretty good deal from a tax perspective for people on the lower end of the income scale, and even for the middle income. We’re on the low end for the Northeast, we’re below the U.S. average.”
“Many people believe that Vermont taxes are higher than in many other states. That is true for upper-income people,” adds Joyce Manchester, from the Joint Fiscal Office. “The effective income tax rate for higher income households is higher in Vermont … and the effective tax rate for lower-income households is much lower than in most other states.”
“Can I ask a question? Little provocative, maybe,” brave question-asker Bruce interjects. “Because this is one thing you’ll hear: There is a nirvana just across the Connecticut River, in some minds. There’s no income tax. There’s no sales tax. How do they raise the revenues necessary to fund government?”
Bruce, of course, is asking about New Hampshire:
“It is true that there’s no income tax, and it’s also true that they have fewer government services than Vermont. And that’s a choice that the state has made over the years,” Manchester says. “I used to live in Hanover [New Hampshire] and back then it was very clear that if you had a child with special needs, you wanted to live in Norwich [Vermont] rather than Hanover, because Norwich schools had more support for kids with special needs.
“So in general Vermont has provided more social services, and in general that means that we have to raise the revenue to pay for those social services.”
Now, maybe you think we’re providing too many social services, or not enough -- maybe you want us to spend our tax dollars differently, or just taxing people less to begin with. This episode is not about that debate. And anyway, everything is completely different now.
We asked the Joint Fiscal folks about this — from where they’re sitting, how will COVID-19 impact the state’s budget? So many hardships have been exacerbated by the coronavirus — what does the future hold?
“I think that we don’t know yet,” says Nolan Langweil. “We don’t know what services people are gonna need, or what we can pay for.”
“Already, we’ve seen about 90,000 Vermonters have applied for unemployment benefits,” adds Joyce Manchester. “That’s out of a workforce of about 315,000 — so it’s a very large percentage, absolutely unprecedented. And it’s an indicator that there are a lot of people out there who are hurting and don’t know very much about their future, which means that they may be dependent on the state and on the federal government to provide a lot of their basic needs. And we just don’t know what future policy is going to look like.”
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Friday, and I’m using a microphone on a long pole to talk to Kathy Peart in the front seat of her car. She has the very first spot in line for a free food distribution here at the county airport in Lyndonville. The event hasn’t even started yet, and there are hundreds and hundreds of cars lined up behind her on the airstrip.
“I mean, I heard there was a lot in Burlington, and they shut down the interstate, and when I heard that I said, ‘I better be up here,’” says Kathy Peart, a Lyndonville resident who says she arrived at 2 a.m. this morning to beat the line.
Today’s event, on May 29, is the 16th that the Vermont Foodbank and the Vermont National Guard have organized since the coronavirus pandemic began. Earlier events featured MRE food rations from FEMA, and more recent giveaways have been Farmers to Families food boxes, in a partnership with the Abbey Group and the state.
“I figure my box of food should go maybe about two months,” Kathy says. ‘That’s gonna help me 100%.”
Kathy is not newly unemployed. She says she lives on disability -- but like many others, she’s feeling a squeeze right now.
“Well, my shock was, when I went to buy a bottle of big bleach,” she says. “Last time I bought it was $3 and something. When I looked at the other day, it was $6 and something. Come on! You know?”
“The meat prices are going sky high, and now the gas is going back up, and it’s just making everybody that’s hurting, hurt worse,” says Jeff Blay.
Jeff Blay is way back in line, with a #292 marked on his windshield. He also lives on disability, due to some past head injuries.
“Oh, I’ve gone downhill,” Blay says. “That’s why I always have to go and try to get assistance — because I’m taking care of my 80-year-old mother on top of it. And I have seizures. Now she just had a heart attack. Things just keep on getting worse.
“And I got a son that’s supposed to be going back to work Monday, hopefully. But he’s freaking out, ‘cuz he’s got a family of four.”
A resident of Berlin who only wanted to give his last name, Stacey, says: “Well, I’m really not sure where we’re all gonna land, to tell you the truth. Some folks, like us, we’ve had the same job for 20 years, and it’s now gone. So really I don’t think any of us know what there’s going to be for job opportunities when this lightens up.”
Mr. Stacey, who was furloughed from his job at a sanitation company in March, is here to pick up food for elderly neighbors in his community.
“We’ve always planned for the worst, so we have our own garden, we’re lucky to be able to do that, [and] we’re just hanging in,” he says. “How much longer that’ll last, we don’t know.”
Elizabeth Willson, of St. Johnsbury: “It’s pretty depressing, honestly. But we’re trying to do the best we can.”
Willson is #817 in line. She says she would’ve come to one of these even before the pandemic: “Definitely. I mean, we always need food.”
As I walk around the airstrip trying to interview people, I get a lot of no thank yous. And it seems like maybe the people who don’t want to talk are new to this life — of needing to ask for help. I ask Jeff Blay, back in car # 292, about this.
“I understand what they’re going through,” he says. “When I first got on disabled, I didn’t want to be on disabled. I wanted to work. I was embarrassed about everything. I did not want to talk to anybody. I felt ashamed of myself. Because it is hard. It’s hard to open up to people.”
Any advice for people struggling through the transition?
“Understand you ain’t the only one out there,” Blay says. “That’s one thing that was wrong with me — I thought I was the only one out there. And then you find out you’ve got tons of people out there, beside you, in the same boat, or worse. But we all need help. No matter who you are, we all need help. And that’s the way I look at it now, because there’s someday you’ll be helping somebody else out.”
When people do talk to me, I ask if they think their financial situation will force them to leave Vermont at some point in the future. Everyone says they want to stay.
And of course, some new people are moving in. Remember Rabin and Cymone Haiju? Not even a pandemic could stop them from moving here.
After Cymone got that planning job in Milton, Rabin found teaching work at Missisquoi Valley Union High School in Swanton.
“With this COVID situation, everyone has been really helpful,” Rabin says. “People from Milton, the people from Swanton, they all have been incredibly helpful, giving us tips on moving to Vermont, giving us suggestions on how to transition to Vermont.”
As for the costs, the Haijus don’t seem worried. They’re going to pay $70 a month more in rent — but Rabin says that happens to be exactly what they’ll save in state income taxes.
Because we like to end our episodes on a hopeful note when we can, here’s one more voice:
“My name is Matt Dunne, and I am the executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation. We are an action tank based in Hartland, Vermont. And a lot of our efforts are trying to figure out how to allow for rural communities to succeed in the new economy.”
When Dunne says “new economy,” he’s talking about things like automation and the displacement of rural jobs. But then there’s the even newer economy: the COVID economy. Dunne says Vermont is vulnerable, no question. But there is a silver lining:
“People are rethinking whether they should be all stacked on top of each other in cities, moving forward,” he says.
With more sectors embracing remote work, Dunne says Vermont communities -- at least, the ones with good internet -- can attract new residents, and help foster a rural renaissance.
It’s tempting to think that could help with Vermont’s cost of living.
“There is a real opportunity for the state to present itself as a place where folks who are in digital economy jobs, or who grew up here and moved away because they felt they had to in order to pay off student debt or other things, to be able to come back.”
But, Dunne says, this isn’t just about creating jobs for people who move here.
“We have to make sure that we are taking steps to ensure that whatever economic recovery is inclusive of folks who are here now and displaced, to make sure they have the training to be able to take some of those jobs,” Dunne says. “And we’ve got to solve the broadband problem.”
To wrap things up, our question-asker Bruce and I record one last Zoom call. Since he’d been a part of so much of the reporting, I ask him what his takeaways are.
“So I’ve learned a lot about how people look at costs in Vermont, information that’s available, how it might be efficacious or helpful, and what its limitations are. But against the background of the pandemic — wow.
“You know, we find out that there are a lot of ‘average’ measures about affordability in Vermont, costs for different services. But there are no average people. There are no average situations. For some it’s difficult to keep up. For others it’s no problem at all. So it’s the story of individual Vermonters cast around the state — and you can’t make easy generalizations. I think that’s a main takeaway: You can’t make easy generalizations.”
In other words, if you’re gonna ask if Vermont — or any place — is expensive, you’ve gotta ask: expensive for whom?
Thanks to Bruce Post for the great question, and for participating in so many interviews. If you want a chance to report with us, share your question at bravelittlestate.org. While you’re there, you can vote on the question you want us to tackle next, and sign up for our newsletter. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter @bravestatevt.
Brave Little State’s theme music is by Ty Gibbons; other music by Blue Dot Sessions. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed; engineering support from Chris Albertine. Lynne McCrea edited this episode.
Special thanks to Stephanie Tomlin.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund, and VPR members. You can support us at bravelittlestate.org/donate.