For every dollar Vermonters send to the federal government we get back $1.14 in federal funding. It’s one of the metrics used that put us in the top ranks of states most dependent on the federal government. We are also highly dependent on tourism, which accounts for six percent of our economy. Only two states — Hawaii and Nevada — are more dependent.
So when we read that the unemployment rate dropped and the economic recovery might be more vigorous than we thought less than a week ago, we took a step up the ladder of hope. Maybe things won’t be as bad as feared. There was also the report this week that the World Health Organization [WHO] thinks the asymptomatic spread of the virus is “very rare” which would represent a profound and helpful change in how the world treats the virus.
Like people anywhere Vermonters are paying rapt attention to all that’s going on, looking for signs that the worst is past and that a return to our normal patterns of behavior is within our grasp.
The danger for states like Vermont is that we’re often first in and last to get out when it comes to economic downturns. That’s particularly worrisome with the pandemic, which has exposed our dependency on tourism and the feds. We don’t know when people will become comfortable traveling and being in close proximity to people they don’t know. There is the fear that the improved employment numbers will slow the efforts in Congress to deliver more aid to the states. Congressional Republicans are starting to dig in their heels, preferring to wait to see whether the economy continues to improve before sending any more aid. Had the employment numbers been worse, as was expected, members of both parties might have sped up their efforts to help their constituents back home.
Vermont can’t afford a wait and see approach. We don’t have the means to generate revenue that other, less dependent, states do.
The wait and see approach also makes little sense. Economists were surprised by the decline in the unemployment rate but they are still in strong agreement that the recovery will be long in coming, and not a matter of months. We’re showing percentage gains, but percentages are meaningless if we don’t remember how precipitously we fell and how deep the hole is from which we will be climbing out of.
It’s also important to remember that the key support programs passed will disappear by summer’s end. If state aid plans are abandoned, or postponed, states like Vermont could end up being hurt at a deeper level than states less dependent on the federal government and tourism. Understanding our vulnerability and being successful advocates will be the defining test of our three-person congressional delegation.
As Congress proceeds, it will be equally important to see how quickly we learn what we need to know about the virus and how it can be contained, short of a vaccine. As soon as the WHO made its announcement, it was forced to acknowledge it doesn’t have enough testing data to conclude whether the virus spreads asymptomatically or not, and to what degree.
If it proves true, cross your fingers, that could be the information essential for the educational establishment — PreK-16 — to resume their normal schedules in the fall. That would also help enormously in bringing the tourists back.
It’s part of Vermont’s wish list, which is a lengthy one.
by Emerson Lynn