Business & Economy

Woolf: Rich town, poor town? No easy answers

VTD Norwich 1
Norwich boasts the highest income of any town in Vermont. File photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Art Woolf is a columnist for VTDigger. Woolf recently retired as an associate professor of economics at the University of Vermont. He served for three years as state economist for Gov. Madeleine Kunin beginning in 1988.

With one notable exception, the richest towns in Vermont are clustered in Chittenden County. The notable exception is Norwich, which also boasts the highest income of any town in Vermont.  The median income family in Norwich earned $141,660 in 2017, far higher than second-ranked Shelburne, at $128,000, and double the statewide average of $70,500. Norwich, just across the river from Hanover, New Hampshire, is home to many high paid professionals who work at Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.  

Chittenden County is home to eight of the 11 highest income towns in the state.  Charlotte ranks just behind Shelburne, with a median family income of $126,000. Ten towns have median incomes of over $100,000, and all of them are in Chittenden County except for Norwich, Stowe and Stratton, and Stratton is a tiny town with only 63 families.

Within Chittenden County, Burlington’s $78,000 median income is 10% above the state’s overall median. Family income is measured by the Vermont Tax Department, and includes married-couple and single-parent families, so it ignores people living alone or in unrelated groups.  So Jerry Seinfeld wouldn’t be included, nor would Chandler and Ross, if they lived together in Friends.

Towns that come closest to the state median are Starksboro, Cambridge, Shaftsbury, Woodbury, Stockbridge and Vergennes — so look there for your average Vermonter, at least income-wise.  And although the Tax Department does not calculate it, I estimate the median family income of married couples — which ignores single-parent families — was $83,400 in 2017, and the U.S. Census estimate for that definition of families is $85,300.

There are other pockets of relatively high-income towns, including in Addison County around Middlebury.  Waltham, Weybridge and Cornwall all have family incomes of about $95,000 and Middlebury itself is $85,000.

Another high-income area is the Mad River Valley, with Fayston, Duxbury, Moretown and Waitsfield having incomes of around $90,000.  And nearby Waterbury, although not in the valley, has a similar median income.

At the other end of the income distribution are seven towns with a median family income of under $40,000 — and that means half of all families earn less than that.  Most, but not all, of those towns are in the Northeast Kingdom, and if we look at towns with median incomes of under $50,000, many are also in the Northeast Kingdom.  And these include some of the area’s larger towns, including Richford, where the median is only $41,100 and Newport City at $45,000.

All of Vermont’s traditional cities except for Burlington have incomes lower than the statewide median.  That includes Barre City, Brattleboro, Bennington, Rutland City, St. Albans City, Springfield, St. Johnsbury and Newport City.   All have median incomes below $60,000 and some are below $50,000. 

Why the big differences among all these cities and towns, with a range between $30,000 and $140,000?  Some are due to the nature of jobs in the area, some the skill levels of the population — and those two are very much interrelated.  Some of the differences are due to the differences in the mix of family types. A town with a lot of families where both spouses work is going to have a higher median income than a town with a lot more single-parent families.  And the latter tend to be found more in cities than suburban towns.

There is no magic bullet to raise the incomes of people in lower income towns, or, by that matter, to raise the incomes of low-income families in high-income towns. More job opportunities, better education and skill training for workers, and a more fertile environment for businesses and entrepreneurs to flourish are all important and widely recognized as such.  But they are very hard to design and implement. 

Another way to improve incomes for people is for those people to move to where incomes are higher and there are more opportunities.  That seems to be happening in Vermont, and not just for low income Vermonters.

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Art Woolf

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