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Why Vermont Is Tackling Its Aging Population Problem One Grant Award At A Time

Uhaul heading to Vermont illustration
Illustration by Emily Judem

Thought it's less than a month old, Vermont’s plan to attract new workers to the state appears to be working, according to state officials.

The Remote Worker Grant Program, signed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott on May 30, has piqued the interest of about 1,000 people who have sent inquiries to see how the program works and whether they qualify. It's a number that has both excited and overwhelmed those implementing the grants.

“Just judging from the response so far, there are clearly people interested in it,” said Joan Goldstein, commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Economic Development. “It’s really had a very good knock-on effect with everything else that we’re trying to do to make Vermont a vibrant place to live and work.”

As the baby boomer generation enters retirement, New England states are grappling with slowing population growth and an aging workforce. Since 2010, the population growth rate has decreased in Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, according to a 2017 summary report from the UMass Donahue Institute on data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Only Massachusetts and Rhode Island have seen an increase in their population growth rates as of the 2017 study, though all New England states fall below the national average.

New England states have populations that are among the oldest in the nation. Maine is the oldest state with a median age of 44.5. In second place sits Vermont, which has a median age of 43.1, followed by New Hampshire at No. 3 with a median age of 42.7. Massachusetts, the New England state with the youngest median age at 39.5, is thirteenth in the nation.

The remote worker grant was established in response to Vermont’s population trends, which, according to Harvard Medical School health care policy professor Nicole Maestas, have been on this path for over 20 years.

“In the 1990s, Vermont, and this is also true for New Hampshire and Maine, became one of just a handful of states that saw their population age,” Maestas said in an interview with WGBH News. “The rest of the country during the 1990s was actually getting younger, but Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine actually saw growth in the older population.”

The initiative, which passed the state legislature 30-0, goes into effect Jan. 1, 2019, gives up to 100 interested workers a maximum of $5,000 per year for two years to be used on costs including moving and remote work space rental fees. After the first three years of the program, the funds allocated to the grants will be reduced to allow 20 people to participate in each year following.

Sen. Ginny Lyons, who authored the bill that created the program, said she hopes this is just the first step to attract new people to the state.

“When you start looking at a program like this you begin with the individual worker, but what I would like to do in the future is to make a clear pathway for businesses to establish themselves,” Lyons said. “Some of the next steps that we want to take is to provide some base for small businesses in the state, as well as new businesses from out-of-state to become a part of our business community.”

While no other state has established a grant program like Vermont’s, other New England states have pitched programs to attract young people.

Several states, including Maine and New Hampshire, have instituted tax credits to assist college graduates living and working in the states in paying off their student loans. Some — Massachusetts and Rhode Island — have established job training programs for citizens to improve their professional skills and potentially be placed in a higher-level job. Scholarships in Rhode Island and internships in Connecticut organized by the respective states are designed to draw in members of a younger generation.

Other states have focused on their marketing strategies. Vermont’s Stay to Stay Weekends provide tourists an opportunity to see what it may be like to live and work in the state. Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, has partnered with a private organization, Live and Work in Maine, to take the state from “Vacationland” to a “career destination,” according to officials.

Vermont officials hope their new approach will build on the work of previous state programs to bring even a few new people to the state.

“We had to think creatively and this is something that hasn’t been done before,” Goldstein said. “We are a small state so even a small amount of people coming into the state will make a difference.”

If these past few weeks are any indicator, they just may succeed.

Clarification: This post has been updated to reflect that the population growth rate data came from UMass Donahue Institute.

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