By Gail Johnson
The question “Can Rutland have it all?”—an expanding commerce base, increased employment, new residents—isn’t rhetorical any more. The three issues are easily combined in conversations, editorials, and now in a story that made front page of The New York Times on Jan. 2, 2017, “Ailing Vermont Town Pins Hopes on Mideast Refugees.” It seems mind boggling to some that new residents will bring new jobs and prosperity to a city that’s seen unemployment insurance claims rise, traditional jobs disappear, and many locals struggling to make ends meet. Other residents believe “new blood” coming to Rutland will generate just the boost the city needs to attract businesses that will employ more to make the economy booming again. I’m not taking sides. I’m simply saying we have differing views.
In pondering logical links between “more people equals more businesses equals more prosperity,” the order of events given above, I came away with needing answers to how this would work. What I’ve found are not clean or easy explanations of these various moving parts in efforts to revive the prosperity engine in Rutland. But it’s a start.
First, we have the position of many in the city that appears to echo data in a 2012 impact study carried out by Chmura Economics & Analytics, LLC, in Richmond, Va., titled “Economic Impact of Refugees in the Cleveland Area,” paid for by a nongovernmental humanitarian group called the Refugee Services Collaborative of Greater Cleveland. Chmura Economics was cited in a legal complaint around that time for presenting data favoring a paying client, but that complaint was not about this report. Nonetheless, I decided I needed another source regarding the influx of new residents — refugees — with positive economic outcomes.
I found a Nov. 2015 story by Eleanor Mueller, employed by McClatchy DC, another data group, titled “Refugees settle quickly and grow the economy, experts say.” The article pointed to Boise, Idaho, where an Iraqi refugee built a Middle Eastern restaurant. The story stated the overall economic impact of refugees far outpaced the cost of their settlement there. Maybe in Boise, for an Iraqi and his restaurant, but should we conclude that it would work in Rutland, or Lawrence, Kan.,, or Owensboro, Ky.? I think it might be a stretch for one personal story to speak for the entire country, but I could be wrong. Then perhaps one man’s story does a library make.
But what happened to logical thinking that used to be ordered as: more business equals more prosperity equals more people? Isn’t that more like Mom’s logic of wake up-get dressed-go outside, rather than the logic proposed by current advocates which translates to: go outside-wake up-get dressed?
For the economic picture, I read a Dec. 27, 2016, article by Andrew Soergel, economy reporter for U.S. News, titled, “Are We Living in a Ghost Job Market?” He cites a working paper from economists from Princeton and Harvard, titled, “The Rise and Nature of Alternative Work Arrangements in the United States, 1995-2015.” These economists show the job market, especially in rural America (think Rutland) has seen a dramatic jump in alternative employment rather than traditional employment.
The researchers found that most alternative workers (the self-employed, independent/contract employees, temporary workers, and e-commerce workers—e.g., Uber, ThumbTack) are involuntary part-time workers. These employees aren’t exactly happy about their arrangements because they are unable to lock down standard full-time options. These atypical employees were also found to work fewer hours per week, inherently limiting their pay.
“They’re trying to make ends meet,” said Fred Goff, CEO of Jobcase. “It’s a massively fragile, shallow economy.”
Soergel noted these experts see strong job growth and wage gains in major city centers, but those have been offset by dwindling opportunities in rural America. Ask a Rutland part-time worker at Home Depot or at the grocery store if they have to work more than one job to pay the bills.
I believe Rutland would do well to rethink how it approaches economic recovery, taking into consideration the economic experts’ data as well as those driven by emotional pulls from around the world. Rutland can successfully accomplish economic recovery and give humanitarian support, but perhaps the logic behind having an economic problem solved by a humanitarian solution needs to be examined more closely.
Gail Johnson is a candidate for Rutland City Alderman. She is a resident and lead coordinator for the Historic South West Rutland Neighborhood, a volunteer for affordable housing and current board member of several organizations. She is a former military finance officer, a former Congressional liaison between federal, state and local governments, an educator, and a lifelong businesswoman in both service and product enterprises.