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Nadworny: Growth And Diversity

I’ve been reading UVM economist Art Woolf’s recent article about Vermont’s population, in which he points out that Vermont was one of six states to lose population last year. Furthermore, except for a short growth spurt between 1960 and 1990, Vermont has typically experienced very slow population growth - or even loss - for the last hundred years.
In fact, if you look at a recent set of interactive graphs created by the New York Times on where and why people move around the U.S., you can see that young people leaving the state appears to have been the norm for Vermont for at least one hundred and twenty years.

Still, typical or not, most people will agree that an aging population poses a challenge for current businesses and future sustainability. So what, if anything, should we do about it?

Well, as a resident of Burlington, one answer seems obvious to me: our immigrant population. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current debate on schools in Vermont. In Burlington our middle grades are experiencing a significant increase in the number of students, driven in part by New Americans . The challenges we face are about expanding, not shrinking, student populations. While in the rest of the state districts are dealing with the effects of having fewer and fewer students in schools.

It seems to me that we should be exploring ways to learn from Burlington and Winooski and extend Refugee Resettlement throughout the entire state. One reason is cultural. Vermont is one of the whitest states in the country; more than 90% of our population is white. In Burlington, however, there are more than 56 different languages spoken in the school system. Burlington kids are growing up in a diversity-rich culture that will prepare them well for success in a multi-ethnic future.

Another reason is economics. According to a new study by two national policy organizations, immigrants accounted for ALL of the net Main Street business growth nationally between 2000 and 2013. While they make up only 16% of the U.S. labor force, immigrants make up 28% of small business owners. They’ve also helped reverse population declines in some of America’s cities.

Increasing immigration in the state won’t be easy. Rural communities will need support and time to adjust. But if we look at past history, it’s also clear that increased immigration has always been a good answer for aging and stagnating populations, both economically and culturally.

Vermont may indeed be very white, especially this time of year, but we should also remember that in the fall, there’s no state that’s more colorful.