Opinion..Imagine if Vermont got immigration right

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by Bill Schubart

In a recent conversation with Governor Scott, one of his principle economic concerns was the gap between job openings and applicants.  With Vermont’s population either slightly shrinking or growing, depending on the most recent data, it’s fair to say our population growth is essentially stagnant.

Of greater concern is that it’s ageing at a rapid rate.  The average Vermonter is 43.  Only Maine and New Hampshire are older.  Nineteen percent of Vermonters are over 65, and when we hit 20 percent Vermont meets the World Bank’s definition of “super-aged.

In spite of the growth of automation, at this point in our history economic expansion still needs human labor.  Even a no-growth economy requires replenishment with new entrants replacing retirees.  We’re not regenerating ourselves as we did when I was young.  Vermont’s current birthrate, down from an annual 7,000 births 12 years ago, is at a 161-year low, at 5,400 births last year.   

In spite of his concern, Governor Scott wisely avoided Paul Ryan’s widely ridiculed plea to urge patriotic American women to have more babies — for the good of the nation.

The decision to have children and how many is an intensely personal one and influenced by many factors.  Birthrates among the young in most developed countries are declining.  Ideally, the decision is based on a couple’s sense of family but, in reality, that decision is often overshadowed by the economy in which one lives.

In my childhood, many agrarian families had lots of kids.  They were dependent on them for farm and household labor and to care for them in their old age.  Then as now, one doesn’t have children without taking into account family economics.

Today, if both partners must work to keep a roof over their heads and pay for the other basics of a manageable life, the cost of either partner staying home to care for the child or paying what may amount to one partner’s income for childcare will inevitably affect the decision to have one or more children.  Most parents are willing to sacrifice their needs for those of a child but not when that sacrifice entails the loss of basics like shelter, nutrition, or healthcare.

Assuming no significant change in Vermont’s low fertility rate — 48 births per 1,000 women aged 15-44 (the lowest in the nation which is at 59/M) — we must either watch our fragile economy shrink further or replenish our population from outside.

As we’re learning, offering to pay people to move here is neither financially sustainable nor so far, particularly compelling.  It’s also a slight to those already struggling to make ends meet here.

Our racial and cultural mix is less dynamic as well when measured against the country at large.  While 60 percent of the national population is non-Hispanic white, we’re currently 93 percent non-Hispanic white.  Growing up in Lamoille County in the fifties, my first image of a person of color was in the Golden book Little Black Sambo.  I never saw a live person of color until I visited my grandmother in New York City.

Looking to organized immigration may be the single smartest economic development initiative Vermont could pursue.  But it’s vital that we avoid the well meant but ill-planned example of many European countries, which welcomed immigrants fleeing war and persecution with open arms and then largely left far too many of them on their own to acculturate and integrate economically.  Many European cities have — as America has throughout its history when Italians, Irish, Germans, Swedes, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans were imported by the thousands to fill jobs — tacitly created immigrant ghettoes of New Americans trying to integrate themselves into their new society and its economy.  This set off a backlash of anti-immigrant fever that could well have been avoided.

Imagine if Vermont were to designate one of its subsiding state college campuses as a welcome center for New Americans and a vocational center for traditional students, and under-skilled Vermonters to learn and work alongside each other.  The campus would offer English as a second language, civics, remedial writing, basic American history —including our history of welcoming immigrants — and an employer-driven curriculum of craft and business skills to everyone.  The campus would continue to offer a traditional elective curriculum for students and new Americans in mixed classes where Vermont students would enrich the acculturation process.

The tuition of new American families would be paid by regional refugee resettlement programs with federal and philanthropic dollars and would add new revenue to our struggling state college system.  Graduating immigrants could integrate here and around New England, becoming part of the economic and social fabric.

As with earlier waves of immigration, today’s new Americans have proven themselves to be among the most productive and hardworking members of the workforce.  The taxes they pay substantially exceed the services they require as they become established.  Statistically, they use fewer government services than long-standing citizens.

The dilemma, of course, is that American immigration policy, as broken as it is currently, is federally controlled and such an initiative will die on the vine if the current White House policy to weaken or eliminate our historic practice of welcoming new Americans to our shores prevails.  However good it would be for Vermont to develop a sensible immigration program, it cannot happen until there is a change in policy at the federal level.

There are those among us who choose to forget that we’re all descended from immigrants.

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