ARBOR OUTLOOK: Vermont and the Plight of Rural America

Margaret R. McDowell
Margaret R. McDowell

"I lived with the decent folks in the hills of old Vermont …” — from "Yankee Lady," as performed by Jesse Winchester

Its beauty is unparalleled. To drive across a one-lane covered bridge and gaze down at the Ottauquechee River, rippling white over rounded stones, surrounded by verdant Vermont hillsides, is to behold astounding scenery.

Strolling main streets in idyllic communities like Quechee and Woodstock, where many churches and other architectural landmarks date from the 1700s, connects one with our proud heritage. Calvin Coolidge was so enamored with his boyhood home of Plymouth Notch that he took the oath of office as our 30th President there.

While my recent Vermont visit was purely recreational, a few local economic trends were difficult to miss. The service economy flourishes in Killington, Stowe and other ski resorts, and in the aforementioned summer tourist locales. Governmental and educational institutions provide some employment, just as in other states. After that, though, the economy flounders. Successful regional start-ups need customers, and Vermont's entire population is only slightly north of 600,000. Ben and Jerry’s markets to a national clientele. So does the Cabot Creamery. There are precious few manufacturing jobs and few large businesses that provide a livable wage. Burlington, located hard by Lake Champlain and a short ferry boat ride from New York, with a population just over 40,000, is Vermont's largest city.

Vermont graduates an impressively high percentage of high school students, but far fewer seek degrees in a dwindling state university system. That Dartmouth College is located in Hanover, New Hampshire, only a few miles away, is a sad affront; Dartmouth accepted less than 9% of its 22,000 applicants last year. Admirably, though, the Ivy League school still offers free tuition to qualified students in poverty-stricken Wheelock, Vermont, because of a historical connection to the town.

Medical facilities are often a long drive away. Without quality hospitals, it's difficult to attract retirees as residents. And without businesses that offer gainful employment, younger families cannot thrive. It's a conundrum that plagues all our rural regions. We are rapidly evolving into a demographically segregated nation. That substance abuse, alcoholism and suicide are on the rise in rural America says much about the dearth of economic opportunity there. Outside of the quaint tourist vistas, there is precious little commerce. Hillbilly Elegy is not limited to West Virginia. Many American farms have been devastated by trade wars and flooding. Net farm income has fallen from $123 billion to $63 billion in the last five years.

To achieve a better life, rural residents must often leave behind family and friends and seek economic opportunity in larger, urban regions. The situation is not dissimilar from the American industrial revolution era of the late 19th century, when millions left the farm for jobs in our growing cities. Now, though, with the outsourcing of most traditional urban manufacturing jobs, this is not always an easy transition. As author Bill Bryson said of Appalachia, it is ironic that our most beautiful regions are often our poorest.

Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, author of the syndicated economic column "Arbor Outlook," is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121 —, a “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.