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A young New York City sports writer moves with his wife to a small town in the rolling hills in central Vermont. His ambition is to be a professional freelance writer, and he even has an advance from a publisher to write his first book. The young couple eagerly looks forward to their life in their new community and set out to put down roots. The writer’s friends warn him that he will be right back in New York after getting a taste of rural life, but the writer is adamant that he is in it for the long haul. While this scenario is straight out of Hollywood — it is the premise of the 1987 Chevy Chase film, “Funny Farm” – Vermont’s government hopes it also occurs in real life. Last year, Vermont announced plans to pay up to $10,000 to people who move to the state on or after January 1, 2019, and work remotely. Vermont’s decision comes on the heels of what I have called Northern New England’s demographics crisis.
When measured by median age, the three Northern New England states (Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine) are the three oldest in the country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age in the United States is 37.8. In Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, it is 42.8, 42.7, and 44.3 respectively. The problem is even grimmer in their most rural areas where the median age is often over a decade higher than the national median. In Essex County, Vermont, in the state’s northeast corner, the median age is 50. In Carroll County, New Hampshire, situated in the state’s Lakes Region, the median age is 51.4. And in Piscataquis County, Maine, home to Mount Katahdin, the median age is 50.7. The consequences of the demographics crisis are real. Industries across Northern New England are facing labor shortages. Local news stories discuss a lack of electricians, plumbers, health care professionals, and other skilled professions. In an upcoming publication in the University of Maine Law Review, I will be talking about how the demographic crisis is affecting access to lawyers in the region.
The existence of the demographics crisis has not been lost on the leaders of the region, and actions have been taken to alleviate it. In addition to the monetary incentive to work remotely in the state, Vermont also announced an initiative that would attempt to tap into the state’s large tourist market to find new residents. In 2018, the state held three weekends where tourists were invited to three cities (Brattleboro, Rutland, and Bennington) to meet with business leaders and get a sampling of the professional resources available. The program, while not rural focused, did focus heavily on small cities in the state that are employment hubs for the surrounding rural communities. In 2017, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu issued an executive order that created a millennial advisory council that will advise the governor on how to attract millennials to the state. Maine recently expanded a program that allows college graduates to use their student loan payments as a tax credit. Introduced in 2008, it formerly only applied to graduates of Maine colleges. Thanks to a recent expansion however, it can now be used by recent graduates of any college in the country. Before leaving office, former Governor Paul LePage had proposed a tax credit for businesses that assisted employees with paying student loans. However, the proposal was not acted upon.
To continue to combat the problem, the region’s leaders will have to be creative and thoughtful in how they approach it. They will also have to utilize their existing resources. For example, Northern New England has a natural magnet that already attracts young people to the region. Most notably, it is home to many top-tier colleges. After all, Dartmouth, Bowdoin, Bates, Colby, and Middlebury colleges all call the region home and attract a population that is largely not from there. In fact, according to the Boston Globe, Vermont has more colleges per capita than any other state. Within these colleges, there already exists a captive audience of young people who could potentially be enticed to remain in the state. To prevent the crisis from becoming worse, leaders will have to continue to explore new initiatives and ways to address it. The future of Northern New England depends on the ingenuity of its leadership and their ability to stem a demographics crisis that threatens the future of the broader region.
Christopher Chavis is a native of Robeson County, North Carolina, and currently lives in Virginia. He is a contributing writer for Legal Ruralism, a blog that covers legal issues facing rural America. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and a Juris Doctor from Michigan State University College of Law. He is also a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.