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PART IV - THE CHALLENGES-A SUMMARY.

The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont offers a paradox of being one of the most appealing yet toughest places to live in the state. For many Northeast Kingdom residents, strong family ties mean there is no other place they can call home. The Northeast Kingdom's small towns offer a strong sense of community. Attachment to the land is high, both through land ownership and appreciation for the wide open beauty. People move to the Northeast Kingdom for the same reasons. They love the great outdoors and the odd combination of a sense of community coupled with rural privacy. They can do what they want yet rely on their neighbors when the need arises. It is a region that truly has a sense of place, a place people want to belong to.

The toughest part about living in the Northeast Kingdom comes from the difficulty to earn a living. The three county region is the most isolated and sparsely populated corner of the state. As a result, it has consistently been the most economically depressed. The countryside is dotted with picturesque villages that have lost their economic foundation, leaving behind poverty and a community infrastructure with no means of support. The former railroad yards of Island Pond, water-powered mills of Barton and granite sheds of Hardwick have long since disappeared. In recent years, St. Johnsbury Trucking and Vermont American Corporation, two large employers in the St. Johnsbury/Lyndon area, either closed their doors or moved south. In the natural resource sector, the forest was clear cut at the turn of the century, and it is once again ripe for the same exploitative cycle.

A. Employment and Income.
The Northeast Kingdom consistently has the highest unemployment rates and lowest wages in Vermont. As Figure 1 shows, the unemployment rate remains proportionally higher than the statewide average, even in times of statewide and national prosperity.


Figure 1: Source, Vermont Department of Employment and Training

Wages and income are also significantly behind the statewide average. Of the approximately 20,000 persons employed in the Northeast Kingdom in 1998, average wages in the Newport Labor Market Area (Orleans/Essex Counties) were only $21,198; and $22,539 in the St. Johnsbury LMA (Caledonia/Essex Counties). This is approximately 80% of the average wage for Vermont. These low wages are despite the fact that the Northeast Kingdom has proportionally more of its residents employed in the manufacturing sector than the statewide average.

Table 1, Workforce and Average Wages, By Sector, 1998



Figure 2: Source, Vermont Department of Employment and Training

The wage gap between the Northeast Kingdom and the rest of Vermont has been consistent over the last ten years.

Similarly, per capita income for the Northeast Kingdom is well below the Vermont average, which in turn is well below the national average.


Figure 3: Source, U.S. Department of Commerce

B. Poverty Rates.
The Northeast Kingdom's counties are the state's three poorest (1990 Census). The collective poverty rate of 13.5% compares to a statewide average of 9.5%. Fully 16% of all children live in poverty. Unlike urban centers, poverty is spread throughout the Kingdom. Caledonia County is the most prosperous of the three counties, yet it has 4 towns with poverty rates over 15%. In Orleans county, 8 of the 19 towns had poverty rates over 15%, and the poverty rate in every one of the county's towns was higher than the state average ( http://crs.uvm.edu ). It should be noted that many of the towns with the lowest poverty rates depicted in Figure 4 are actually heavily forested communities with little to no population.

Poverty Rates 1990

Figure 4: Poverty Rates by Town, 1990 Census

C. Educational Attainment.
The Northeast Kingdom has the lowest educational attainment rates in Vermont. Only 68% of the adults in Essex county (population 6,400) have high school diplomas, and only 8.5% of adults have a bachelor's degree or higher. Orleans County is a close second. Caledonia County is still substantially behind the statewide average of 80.8% with high school diplomas and 24% with bachelors degrees.

D. Population.
The land itself is sparsely populated. The Northeast Kingdom comprises 21% of the state's land area (2027 square miles) yet only 10% of the population. The largest town, St. Johnsbury, has only 7,900 residents. The 50,000 other residents are spread out between 54 cities, towns, grants, gores, and unincorporated towns. Of the 49 incorporated towns, 42 have a population under 2,000. The population is almost entirely of European descent. A sizeable number trace their heritage to French Canada. (Center for Rural Studies, from U.S. Census, 1990)

Table 2 - Population Range of Northeast Kingdom Municipalities, 1998
Source: Vermont Department of Health Vital Statistics, 1998 projections

Population Range of Northeast Kingdom Municipalities, 1998

Population Range

Number of Towns/Cities within this Population Range

NEK Total (60,862)

Caledonia (28,812)

Orleans

(25,862)

Essex

(6,182)

0

3

0

0

3

1 - 100

5

0

0

5

101 - 300

8

1

0

7

301 - 1000

20

8

12

0

1,001 - 3,000

15

6

5

4

3,001 - 5,000

2

0

2

0

5,001 - 7,740

2

2

0

0

Total

55

17

19

19

Population Trends. The result of the poor economy is that people need to leave this extraordinarily beautiful part of the state they call home in order to find work. Essex and Orleans Counties are actually expected to loose population over the next 20 years, while Caledonia County will grow at substantially less than the state average. The region has an above average number of residents age 35 to 55, indicating an aging population. (Vermont Population Projections: 1990-2015, Vermont Health Care Authority, Center for Rural Studies, June, 1993.)
( http://crs.uvm.edu/databank.htm )

E. Housing.
Curiously, the rate of home ownership in the Northeast Kingdom is slightly higher than the rest of the state. However, county wide median values for these homes ranged from $56,000 to $72,000, compared to a statewide median value of $95,600. The housing stock in Caledonia County is the oldest in the state, with half of the homes constructed before 1940. The older housing stock also tends to have more environmental hazards such as lead paint and is substantially more inefficient to heat. Multiplying this problem are harsh winters that can average five degrees colder than the Champlain Valley of western Vermont.

F. The Elderly.
The elderly population in the Northeast Kingdom suffers from isolation and limited public transportation. As a result of isolation, the elderly often do not have the choices and information available to more urban counterparts. Housing owned by the elderly tends to be old and in need of maintenance. There is only one assisted care facility, in the far southwestern corner of the region. The elderly may depend on home health services to stay out of nursing homes, but recent federal legislation to contain medicare costs threatens to penalize Vermont's already efficient system (the most efficient in the country) by cutting existing per capita benefits.

G. Social Risks.
Recent trends show remarkable drops in the rates of child abuse and new families at risk (births to single mothers under age 20 with fewer than 12 years education), but these rates have only dropped to the statewide average. The three counties had the highest percentage of adults who smoke cigarettes. Teenagers use marijuana and alcohol at rates equal to or greater than the state average. Alcohol and other substance abuse for adults in comparable to the rest of the state as a whole. ( www.ahs.state.vt/98compro ) .

H. Agriculture and Forestry.
The Northeast Kingdom is traditionally an agricultural area. However, the total number of farms has declined significantly over the last 30 years. Some of these farms have been consolidated into larger farms, but the overall trend has been a loss of agricultural land to development or non-productive uses. The Vermont Forest Roundtable estimates half of the forest clear cuts taking place in Vermont since 1972 occurred in the Northeast Kingdom, with much of that timber exported as raw material. Recent changes have included conservation of significant tracts of industrial forest formerly owned by Champion International in Essex County, and a new forestry practices law that prohibits clear cuts of over 40 acres that are not part of a forest management plan.

A note on agricultural wages: Vermont Department of Employment and Training data have been used to estimate the percentage of the workforce engaged in various industries. While DET data is useful for certain industries that utilize steady, waged employees, the data is not very accurate when considering unwaged, informal, or contract employment in sectors such as agriculture or forestry. DET states that 1.6% of Newport LMA residents have jobs in agriculture, while the census states that 10.3% of Orleans County residents work on farms. According to Rural Vermont, a Vermont farm advocacy group, "The wide discrepancy reflects the fact that Census information is gathered from individuals and households, DET data from businesses. . . . The DET surveys business establishments quarterly on employment and wages, but only those whose employees are covered by unemployment insurance. Since only farms with $20,000 or more in wages per quarter pay unemployment insurance, DET figures for that industry will be substantially lower than actual employment." These discrepancies in data sets are noted not to cast aspersions on research methods but simply to note that some indicators of economic health may not be as accurate as others. One of the best ways to judge people's economic security is to ask them how they are doing -- in agriculture, virtually every farmer will tell a surveyor that the current costs of farming in the Northeast Kingdom are higher then the monetary rewards.

I. Geography.
The Northeast Kingdom has two distinct borders that effect economic development. The "no tax" state of New Hampshire draws retail sales away from the Northeast Kingdom and competes with Vermont for manufacturing and other job expansions. The drop in value of the Canadian dollar has discouraged people from Quebec from spending money in the region. The Canadian government subsidizes saw mills along the Vermont border which purchase their raw timber resource from Vermont. In some cases, Canadian saw mills then re-export finished products back to Vermont. While language differences also pose a barrier to trade, there may be an opportunity to attract Canadian investment from businesses worried about potential political instability in Quebec. An additional geographic barrier is the mountains. The Green Mountains block the region to the west, and a hilly piedmont borders the south.

J. Transportation and Infrastructure.
The public transportation system in the Northeast Kingdom is very limited. Rural Community Transportation is a private, non-profit organization that coordinates medical trips for income eligible residents, shuttles between St. Johnsbury-Lyndonville and Newport-Derby, a senior shopping shuttle once a week, and coordinates ride share and van pool programs. Car ownership is a necessity for the rural population for transportation to most jobs, access to health care and other vital services. Transportation links in the region are remote. The north-south interstate system is strong, but it ends in rural Quebec to the north and is a substantial distance to population centers in the south. The east-west corridor connecting the region to Montpelier and Burlington snakes over mountain ridges. Driving conditions on both of these roads can be problematic in winter and with the real threat of moose and other wild animals at night. The region is also two hours drive from the nearest full-service airport. Telephone lines run out to rural areas in a spoked-wheel fashion, making loss of telecommunication services for those areas more frequent.

K. Cultural Opportunities.
Geographic isolation leads to a lack of cultural opportunities. The Northeast Kingdom has always provided its own cultural infrastructure, yet many of the village opera and meeting houses are in need of repair and restoration. Limited philanthropic resources maintain the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium, St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, Old Stone House Museum, Haskell Opera House and Catamount Arts at levels that require constant innovation by staff and board members. As much as performances and cultural visits are enjoyed by the people of the Northeast Kingdom, attendance drawn solely from Northeast Kingdom residents will never be enough to pay for first class events. The immensely popular Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover formerly drew thousands its annual Domestic Resurrection Circus, yet the annual weekend has been discontinued since 1999 due to overwhelming crowds and an isolated and unfortunate incident of violence in neighboring camp sites. Bread and Puppet Theater continues to hold smaller performances each weekend through the summer.

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