As longtime readers know, the Demographic Deathwatch is not a novelty dance craze but a recurring feature of this column. But it’s not just for Europe, Russia, China, and Japan anymore! Some parts of America are acquiring demographic profiles that would qualify them for EU membership.
Take the Green Mountain State. As Howard Dean was fond of saying during his 2004 presidential campaign, “Vermont is the way America ought to be.” If it is, we’re all done for. Its marquee brands are either Canadian-owned (Vermont Castings wood stoves) or European-owned (Ben & Jerry’s ice cream) and any non-foreign economic activity in the state long ago had any life regulated out of it.
But never mind all that. I ventured across the Connecticut River the other day and picked up the local paper, the Journal Opinion of Bradford, Vt. And among the other front-page headlines (“Newbury Will Mail Town Reports”; “Upcoming Sand Pile Talk”) was a story on how local school districts were in merger talks. No underlying reason was immediately given for the suddenly pressing need to merge: It seemed to be accepted as a natural feature of life that you can’t do anything about. And then a gazillion paragraphs into the story, the reporter finally explained what was going on:
Throughout Vermont, student enrollment at public elementary and secondary schools is declining. According to figures from the state’s Department of Education, there were 104,559 students at those schools during the 1999–2000 school year. Last year, that figure was down to 92,572.
Which is quite a drop. In fact, Vermont school enrollments have declined 13 years in a row. Since 1996, they’ve fallen by 13 percent, slumping below 100,000 in 2004 and projected to fall below 90,000 in 2014. The part of the state that my corner of New Hampshire borders is admittedly rural, and it’s not an unusual phenomenon for small towns to drain population to the big cities. But a couple of days later I was in the capital, Montpelier, and its school board is in merger talks with the neighboring towns of Berlin and Calais.
If schoolkids are thin on the ground, the state’s total population has held steady — 604,000 in 1999, 621,000 today. So Vermont is getting proportionately more childless. Which is to say that Vermont, literally, has no future.
One school-board member whose enrollment has bumped from 600 to 500 and is now heading down to 400 told the paper: “What are we going to do? We’re not holding our breath that the state is going to solve this problem.”
I suppose by “the state” he means the department of education or, in a more general way, Montpelier. But in a very basic sense there is no “state”: Graying ponytailed hippies and chichi gay couples aren’t enough of a population base to run a functioning jurisdiction. To modify Howard Dean, Vermont is the way liberals think America ought to be, and you can’t make a living in it. So if you’re a cash-poor but land-rich native Vermonter taxed and regulated and hedged in on every front, you face a choice: In the new North Country folk wisdom, they won’t let you fish, so you might as well cut bait. Your outhouse is in breach of zoning regulations, so you might as well get off the pot. Etc. When he ran for president, Howard Dean was said to have inspired America’s youth. In Vermont, he mainly inspired them to move somewhere else. The number of young adults fell by 20 percent during the Dean years. And what’s left is a demographic disaster: The state’s women have the second lowest birthrate in the nation, and the state’s workforce is already America’s oldest. Last year, Chris Lafakis of Moody’s predicted Vermont would have “a really stagnant economy” not this year or this half-decade but for the next 30 years.
True, more gays appear to have moved in. In European terms, homosexuals are Vermont’s Muslims — no disrespect to either party, I hasten to add, before you press that fatwa button. And gay second-homers still require enough of a local populace to generate a scenic plaid-clad coot or two chewing tobaccy on the porch of a still-operating general store: It’s kind of a downer to drive past a bunch of abandoned farms and collapsed barns en route to your weekend pad.
Nowhere in the news reports of school-merger talks does anyone suggest trying to reverse the policies that drive out young families and make Vermont — what’s the word the eco-types dig? — “unsustainable.” When it comes to “climate change,” it’s taken for granted that we can transform the very heavens if only we cap’n’trade’n’tax’n’regulate you even more.
But the demographic death spiral? That’s just a fact of life, to question which puts you beyond political viability. The new Vermont prefers poseur politics and solutions for non-problems. A couple of years back, Gov. Jim Douglas, one of those famously moderate GOP New Englanders, finally noticed something was wrong in Green Mountain schoolhouses. So he acted decisively, signing legislation to protect the environment by forbidding school buses to run their engines while waiting for children to board. Tough on the kids: On many buses, there are too few students to generate much in the way of body heat. But you’ve gotta be able to prioritize: “This is a great step forward for our state,” declared the governor. The wheels are coming off the Vermont bus, but at least its engine won’t be running as the thing falls apart.