The latest Vermont census data is hardly surprising. It shows a state with an aging and shrinking rural population.
Yet one municipality seems to challenge these trends. Burlington, the largest city in Vermont, is also the youngest. It is one of the few places in the state with a growing population and incomes that are increasing at a faster rate than the state average.
But this growth has also led to unique challenges. New census data shows that Burlington’s median household income remains below the county and state median, revealing the hardships for many residents.
And while it’s not the only place in the state where housing costs are rising, Burlington’s relatively low income levels and strong housing demand have led a large portion of the population to spend over 30% of its income for housing – the accepted standard for affordability.
“Burlington’s challenges as a city are different from those of rural communities,” said Emily Beam, professor of economics at the University of Vermont. “There are a lot of people coming in, a lot of things happening – but her challenge is to meet a lot of different needs.”
A lower income model
The most recent city-level demographics are the U.S. Census Communities Survey, which averages numbers for Burlington and other cities between 2015 and 2019.
This 2015-2019 snapshot puts Burlington’s median household income at $ 51,394, below the state median of $ 61,973 and well below the Chittenden County median of $ 73,647.
Burlington also has a higher poverty rate. Census data shows that 8.9% of Burlington residents earn less than $ 10,000 a year, nearly double the state and county rate.
The queen city is also distinguished from its neighbors by higher income levels. The percentage of people earning $ 75,000 or more is much lower than in the rest of Chittenden County.
VTDigger is subscribed by:
Beam suggested that part of the disparity could be due to Burlington’s very young population. The median age in Burlington is 27, well below the rest of the state, and the city is the site of several universities.
Younger people earn less on average than older residents, which could push Burlington’s numbers down, she said.
Data by age group shows that even older residents of Burlington earn less than their Chittenden County counterparts.
Burlington reflects a national model. People who can afford it are moving out of cities for a bit more space and other amenities, Beam said.
But not everyone can afford to buy a home or live away from work. About half of Burlington residents drive to work, according to census data, below Chittenden County’s 72% rate. (It is not known how many have cars but choose not to drive or are carless by choice.)
“If you’re in a fairly urban area and you don’t have your own transportation,” you’re stuck on public transportation, Beam said.
Burlington’s low income rates may also reflect statewide income disparities based on race. White and non-Hispanic households in Vermont have a median income of $ 63,000, compared to $ 39,000 for Black Vermonters and $ 48,000 for Hispanic Vermonters.
As one of the most diverse cities in the state, racial income disparities could be reflected in Burlington data, Beam said.
“There is everything from people who work in the hospital or the UVM to people who are low-income refugees because they are living in a new place,” she says.
Income and house
It’s no secret that Burlington is in a housing crisis. Advocates and officials in the region say rising population and jobs have led to a lack of affordable housing.
Census data shows that housing in Burlington is among the most expensive in Vermont. Burlington is 16th in the state in terms of median housing costs for renters.
A quarter of Burlington homeowners and 57% of renters spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs, suggesting housing in the city is not affordable, according to census data.
The higher the housing costs, the harder it is for people to protect themselves from economic uncertainty, Beam said.
“You have less money to save for down payments, and less cushion for things like – well, a pandemic,” she said.
VTDigger is subscribed by:
An emergency expense in this situation can send someone to the brink of homelessness, she said.
How the Statehouse can help
Representative Selene Colburn, P-Burlington, said she was not surprised by the income disparity between those who live in Burlington and those who live in neighboring towns.
When she served on Burlington City Council from 2014 to 2017, she reviewed the data regularly. The patterns remain the same, Colburn said.
“I am very aware of the extreme poverty and the concentration of needs in Burlington,” she said. “I wasn’t surprised by the data, but I suspect others might be.
“It clearly doesn’t fit the kind of narrative and assumptions about Burlington that people sometimes have in the state,” she said.
Burlington is the most populous city in the state and is considered an economic center, Colburn said. His colleagues at the Statehouse sometimes do not include the city in discussions about areas where economic aid or services are most needed. She said she had seen this manifested in conversations about where to send money for addiction services or homeless shelters.
These new census data should serve as a reminder, Colburn said, that while significant wealth is generated in Burlington, the benefits travel with workers who live in neighboring towns.
“The cost of owning a home in Burlington is so high that it drives people who want to own a home, they are actually kicked out of nearby Burlington,” said Colburn. At the end of his last term on city council, Colburn said a three-bedroom house could sell for $ 500,000 in his district. About 60% of Burlington residents are renters.
One place to start tackling income inequality, she said, is to propose a tax for companies whose executives have a sky-high pay gap between them and their employees. Colburn, the progressive House leader, said she was drafting a bill for the next session that would close the executive pay gap.
She also wants to find a way to tackle income inequalities in rural and urban areas by reforming the way the state finances schools.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Phil Baruth, D / P-Chittenden, is also studying structural changes to school funding.
Baruth and Colburn pointed to a recently published study, conducted by the University of Vermont, Rutgers University and the American Institutes for Research, which reassessed how Vermont should spend education dollars.
Funding for schools is calculated, in part, by how much it costs to teach each student. Some students who learn English, have low income, or live in rural areas, cost more to teach and are weighted differently for school budgets. The study found that Vermont did not adequately fund education for students who fall into these categories.
“I think people throw away the word Burlington like it’s synonymous with wealth,” Baruth said. “In fact, the heart of Burlington has a large portion of the free and reduced student body living in or near poverty.
In the last session, Baruth said his committee brought forward a reform bill in line with the study’s recommendations, but when Covid-19 hit it stuck on the wall of the Senate Finance Committee where he is dead. Baruth said he would reintroduce the bill this session, with the aim of properly funding schools with struggling populations and increasing the chances of social and economic mobility.
“There is precedent in the Statehouse against Chittenden County, and Burlington in particular,” Baruth said. “This is usually a complete misunderstanding of the situation in the heart of Burlington.
“People think, ‘Oh, if you’re from Burlington, you’ve got all the benefits,’ he says. “The truth is… there is a generational poverty that has resisted all kinds of change efforts.”