Commentary
February 8, 2017

Is Vermont poor or paradise? Depends on the study

By Jon Margolis, VTDigger

Vermont offers its citizens more opportunity to “access the American dream” than any other state. Vermont is one of the poorest states in the Union. Can both those judgements be correct? No. One of them must be wrong. Maybe both of them.

But just look where they come from. They seem so … so believable. They are the conclusions of studies by organizations that have enough prestige to get news organizations to report their results. They come professionally packaged with full-color graphs and charts, backed up by data, much of it from official U.S. government agencies.

The lesson here, then, is obvious: Not every professionally packaged research report from a prestigious organization should be taken seriously.

If anything, this lesson may be especially true of all those studies that compare and evaluate the 50 states on the basis of their economic, social, or educational outcomes. Some of those state-comparison surveys are based on serious research by scholars interested in finding out what is going on and in explaining why people in some states are healthier, wealthier, better educated, or happier (if that’s measurable) than others. Such surveys can be useful for policy makers, researchers and journalists.

But others have a blatant (and distorting) political agenda, none more blatant (or distorting) than “Rich States/Poor States” produced by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

In fairness, this report does not – strictly speaking – call Vermont one of the poorest states. But it finds that Vermont has the second worst “economic outlook” (better only than New York’s) and the 11th worst “economic performance.”

Considering that the report’s title is “Rich States/Poor States,” those findings certainly suggest that Vermont is one of the poorest states.

By both common sense and scholarly consensus, the standard for judging a state’s relative wealth is its median household income. At last count, Vermont’s was $56,990 a year, some $1,200 higher than the national median and the 20th highest among the states. Conventional arithmetic indicates that “20th of 50” is in the top half. Vermont also has the fourth lowest poverty rate in the country. That would make it (arithmetic again) the 46th least poor state. “Least poor” could be considered another way of saying “richest.”

Beating up on this report – indeed, beating up on ALEC – is too easy. ALEC is an ultra-conservative outfit largely funded by the tobacco, pharmaceutical and petroleum industries. Two of the three authors of this report, Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore, are well-known far-right polemicists with factual accuracy records which are – to be charitable – shaky.

Still, it’s surprising that no one at the ALEC headquarters wondered whether publishing a report suggesting that rich states were “poor states” might render the organization a laughingstock. But what else is new? ALEC has been putting out these reports since 2007, always claiming that its “economic outlook” rankings would accurately predict a state’s future economic performance. They have not. The “Opportunity Index” study concluding that Vermont is the best place to pursue “the American dream” is neither as blatantly political nor as pointless. In fact, it contains some valuable information, which persuasively counters some of the doom-and-gloom assessments of many Vermonters.

For instance, the study shows that Vermont has more banks and grocery stores per person than do most other states. Those factors are rarely included in measurements of well being, but they are important to everybody’s daily life. The less time one has to spend schlepping to the bank or the store (or standing in line at either), the better life is. The study also found that Vermont has more physicians per person than most states, much less violent crime, a smaller percentage of teens and young adults who are neither in school nor working, a higher percentage of households with access to high-speed internet, and a higher rate of high school and college graduation than most other states.

The study is associated with the Measure of America project of the Social Science Research Council, a mainstream academic institution which, like most of mainstream academia embraces (or perhaps just accepts as natural) a political outlook that might best be described as respectable, moderate, center-left.

So it should be no surprise that this study emphasized many of the benefits that Vermont’s relatively high taxes provide but ignores those relatively high taxes.

Vermont is expensive, the study notes, which could complicate pursuit of the “American Dream” whatever that may be.

Unlike “Rich States/Poor States,” the “Opportunity Index” report is useful, but more useful to those aware of its political tilt, even if slight comparatively.

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