By Julia Purdy
There is bad news about population loss in six U.S. states, according to governing.com, which lists Illinois, West Virginia, Connecticut, Mississippi, Maine and Vermont as the states with the most concerning demographics, (“The States with Declining Populations,” Jan. 19, 2016).
The article cited the U.S. Census Annual Social and Economic Survey, conducted each spring, which measures population movements within the U.S. while gathering workforce data directly through interviews with households. As of July 2015, the Census tallied 1,309 Vermont residents who had left the state, following 588 the year before. In the same period of time, there was a net gain in population of 1,181 ( … those born minus those who passed away.)
The article reported that Vermont and Maine “have the nation’s two oldest populations in terms of median age” and blamed the aging generation for “stagnation” and “holding back” population growth. Put that together with measurable out-migration of the last few years and the solution is to replenish populations by courting the 25-to-34 Millennial generation, as many cities across the nation are doing. But in Vermont, the reality is much more nuanced.
“When people say we’re losing our youth that’s not exactly accurate,” UVM geography professor Cheryl Morse told the Mountain Times. “The real age group that we’re losing is the 35-54 cohort.”
Morse co-authored with Wendy Geller of the Vermont Dept. of Education a 2014 report on the Vermont Roots Migration Project, a groundbreaking, grassroots survey of Vermonters who left Vermont, returned, or stayed home after high school.
Morse graduated from Woodstock High School, Class of 1985. The descendant of an old Vermont family herself, Morse is well-traveled: she did a semester abroad in Nepal, lived in Vancouver, B.C., where she worked on her Ph.D. in geography at the University of British Columbia, made visits to Europe, and took road trips across the U.S.
How did the Vermont Roots Migration Project get started? Like so many Vermont initiatives, it began as casual conversation among the panelists in a forum on youth out-migration from Vermont. As it happened, the members of the panel were all Vermont-born — “which is really rare,” Morse remarked.
In sharing their personal stories, the group realized that “there was no real deep research on why people decide to stay or leave or come back,” Morse explained. The official view is that “it’s all about jobs and cost of living,” but the group knew there was something else at play, too. Being scientists, they decided to put together a “simple online survey that would gather the stories of a few people” and posted the survey on their own Facebook pages, soliciting responses.
What came back floored them. They collectively received 3,692 responses in three weeks in March-April 2014, from respondents aged 15 to 91.
The only firm requirement was that respondents had attended high school in Vermont, but they heard from people who were living or had lived all over the U.S. and the world.
Respondents were grouped into three categories: Leavers, Stayers and Returnees. Just over one-half, or 51.52 percent, were Leavers — those who had moved away and had never returned. Returnees were in the minority at 17.9 percent of respondents, and Stayers — those who had stayed in Vermont since high school — represented 30.58 percent. Interestingly, the distribution by age, race, relationship status, sexual orientation and education closely paralleled the distribution within the Vermont population itself. However, roughly two-thirds of the respondents were women.
The distribution by age did not follow that pattern. Over one-third of the respondents were aged 30-39, compared to just 11.2 percent of the Vermont population. The 40-49 age group followed at just under 20 percent, commensurate with the Vermont population in that group. The 20-to-29-year-old respondents totaled 18.3 percent of the whole, compared to 12.9 percent of the Vermont population.
In addition to querying about reasons for leaving, staying or returning for purposes of tabulation, the survey asked for personal comments. The results were eye-opening and uncovered a strong vein of identification among respondents with Vermont and what it stands for in their minds.
Why Leavers left
“No single factor explains why a majority of Leavers choose to move out of Vermont,” the report states.
When asked whether the political climate in Vermont influenced the decision to leave, Morse said that some of the comments from Leavers mentioned an aversion to Vermont politics but others returned because they like it.
The top reasons, however, were the location of the workplace, the availability of work, and better salaries somewhere else. In the middle range, respondents cited the cost of living and the “intolerable” cold weather. A minority cited family living elsewhere, inability to do their favorite recreation, and “I never enjoyed living in Vermont.”
In their own words, Leavers often mentioned restlessness, a need for more cultural stimulation and diversity as can be found in large cities, lack of opportunity, and cost of living relative to wages.
However, Vermont still has an emotional tug for many. In describing their feelings, a full 85 percent of Leavers described feeling homesick or at least missing aspects of Vermont. Their comments ranged from missing “All of it” to the seasons and the landscape, to “Beauty, kind people, pride in Vermont,” “The way it used to be,” and “Being able to say I’m from Vermont.”
(They are not alone in this. Native son Frederick Billings, who carved out a career in California as a lawyer in the gold rush days and was a founder of Berkeley College, always introduced himself as “Frederick Billings of Woodstock” and chose to raise his family in Vermont.)
Why Vermonters came back
Nostalgia also drove many Returnees’ decision to return to Vermont. Not surprisingly, employment was not a motive for most—25 percent of respondents cited work. Most cited what they missed about Vermont: family, landscape and community. Many mentioned that their time away was temporary anyway. A few returned to care for family members and even fewer came to retire here.
They offered such comments as: “Because I am a Vermonter,” “It was time to come home,” “I wanted my children to live near my parents,” and the cost of living and quality of life while raising children.
Nevertheless, while half said they planned to stay permanently, 25.9 percent said they planned to live in Vermont only part-time, while 30 percent said they did not plan to settle here permanently.
Those who stayed
The landscape, the presence of family, culture and community, and small size were cited in that order by the majority of Stayers, those who stayed in Vermont after high school. Just over one-third mentioned that they stayed for work, and 12.4 percent said they would move away when the opportunity arose.
The motive for staying put was similar to that for coming home. Ten percent said they stayed to care for a family member. As with the other groups, the preference of a partner to leave or stay was important to some.
Comments included feeling deeply rooted and at home in family, community and rural life, wanting the children to know their grandparents, and “Vermont is like a family with its own flag.”
The survey tracked not only the home counties Vermonters started from but where they moved to eventually. In spite of the nostalgic pull that is associated with rural life, by far the majority either stayed in or moved back to Chittenden or Washington counties (comprising Burlington and Barre/Montpelier metro areas, respectively). When asked whether Returnees were drawn to urban concentrations after living in large metropolitan areas elsewhere, Morse replied, “It’s different for different people. It’s not necessarily because they want to be in an urban area but want to be part of cultural diversity, an openness to differences, raise their kids to be comfortable with diversity.” Some Returnees have lived abroad in another culture.
Of the 8 percent of respondents who attended high school in Rutland County, about half either stayed in or returned to Rutland County. For Addison County the figures were less except that somewhat more people returned to Addison County from elsewhere. Slightly less than 10 percent of respondents attended high school in Windsor County, and about three-quarters of those either stayed or returned.
Where did people live when not in Vermont? In the 19th century you could go almost anywhere in the West or Midwest and bump into another Vermonter, and sometimes it seems that way today in the Pacific Northwest, Arizona and Florida. But the data tells a different story.
In fact, the West Coast was or had been home for 21.5 percent of the Leavers and 19.1 percent of the Returnees, and the Southwest, for only 12.1 percent and 10 percent. Former Vermonters who lived abroad included 17.9 of the Leavers and 19.4 of the Returnees. The Midwest was just behind with 16.5 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively. The Mountain West in 2014 drew 11.6 percent of Leavers and 8.8 percent of the Returnees.
By far the majority of both Leavers and Returnees resided in the Northeast, 69.7 percent and 72.6 percent, respectively, followed by the southern U.S. with 31 percent and 30 percent. The fewest of all were in Canada (under 3 percent for both), followed by the islands and Alaska in the 3 percent range.
Migration is an old story in Vermont
Vermont has always struggled to keep people. Almost as soon as the early settlers moved up from Connecticut and Massachusetts many were packing up to move on west into New York, Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley. Several times the state seemed almost to empty out—in 1816, it snowed every month, driving many off their farms; many able-bodied young men and women left after the Civil War for greener pastures in the Midwest and South or the mills in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Vermont has seen three “back-to-the-land” movements that brought new people in: the period of the New Hampshire Grants, 1749-1764; the 1930s when urbanites were fleeing the threat of war and seeking a simpler life; the 1970s era of communes and hippie farmers; and we’re in the middle of a fourth, according to some.