There are many benefits to living in northern New England. Many people are drawn to the wide open spaces, the rural culture and the small-town living where folks get to know and care about their neighbors.
There is one major drawback, however. A new Federal Reserve Bank of Boston survey shows that poor people living in rural northern New England have a tougher time finding jobs and affordable housing, according to a report from VT Digger. To make matters worse, programs set up to help the poor tend to be more focused on urban areas, which thus garner the most funding. But policy solutions that work in an urban context may not be suitable for rural areas.
For example, because of low population density and limited public transportation, services like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and housing vouchers don't have the same impact in rural areas as compared with urban settings. People in rural areas are more likely to receive SNAP benefits, but they typically live further away from stores that allow them to redeem the benefits, said Anthony Poore, senior community development analyst at the Boston Fed and co-author of the report.
Furthermore, the report says limited funding for subsidized or low-income housing is increasingly channeled toward "high-impact urban/suburban development projects, leaving rural affordable housing development behind and competing for a smaller share of resources."
As we've said on this page before, it's important to provide our poorer neighbors with an adequate social safety net so they have basic necessities like food and housing. But that's just a short-term Band Aid. A better, long-term solution is to lift these people out of poverty and help them gain more independence, thus reducing the need for food stamps and housing assistance altogether. That means providing more high-paying jobs and the training they need to secure those jobs.
That's why we're encouraged by some of the recommendations in the Fed report that focus more on economic development and educational opportunities.
Poore is promoting development of Children's Savings Accounts along the lines of Vermont's existing 529 college savings plans to expand economic and educational opportunities and bolster workforce development. This would address the "middle skills gap," described by another researcher from the Boston Fed as a "mismatch" between the skills employers need and those a workforce has. This has been a persistent problem here in Vermont, and the report shows that New England in general is more susceptible than other regions to this gap.
Policymakers in Vermont are pushing for new workforce training programs that help workers improve their skills. There is also legislation in the works that targets "new economy" entrepreneurship to encourage more economic development in high-tech and knowledge-based enterprises.
For these efforts to succeed, however, people need to be encouraged to take that first step toward a more financially secure future. Unfortunately, as some survey respondents noted, eligibility structures can incentivize chronic reliance on public assistance. In other words, a lot of people chose to stop working because the loss of benefits is so high that they can't afford to work.
"If government benefits could gradually decline as people gradually increase income and savings, then families would have a chance to become self sufficient," wrote one respondent from Vermont.
Changes to the Reach Up program that place new limitations on welfare benefits for single parents are now under review in the House Human Services Committee, VT Digger reports. Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, has sponsored H.711 to introduce a "slope" to the unemployment compensation program, so that beneficiaries could ease off assistance.
Better paying jobs would also help address the problem of low morale among workers. One Vermont respondent connected poverty's self-perpetuating cycle to a "persistent confidence gap," especially among rural youth, and cynicism that pursuit of a better quality of life is even possible.
That may explain why Vermont is losing so many of its young people who are leaving to pursue better opportunities elsewhere. By focusing on workforce training and economic development to bring more high-paying jobs to Vermont we can keep more of our young people here.