Being able to afford to live in Vermont has been a question that's probably as old as the state itself, but suddenly, it seems the term has acquired new gravitas and status.

Phil Scott, the current lieutenant governor who is in the midst of a re-election campaign, stopped by The Journal last Friday in the course of his 500-mile, 14-county bike ride around the state, and noted affordability - or the lack of it - was a common complaint he had heard from residents along the way.

"They don't know how they are going to stay here," he said.

It's not just about taxes, but fuel, gas and normal living expenses, that have residents worried, he added.

Former Governor Jim Douglas weighed in on the same theme last week during the annual meeting of the Associated Industries of Vermont, a manufacturing group.

As reported in the online news outlet Vtdigger.org, Douglas expressed concerns that the most serious issue facing the state was based in demographics. The state is getting progressively older as a whole.

"If you don't have the people, you don't have the human capital, and then nothing's going to be very successful," Douglas said, according to vtdigger.org.

And the primary reason behind the slow motion demographic decline is a connection to affordability. For younger Vermonters devoid of a buffer of savings or investment income to tide them over, it's a real right here, right now question about whether Vermont, despite whatever else it may have to offer in the "quality of life" vein, is a place where they can afford to live.


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Just to be clear that this is a bipartisan issue, we recall a comment made by then candidate-for governor Peter Shumlin, when he paid us a visit during the Democratic primary race in 2010. He noted how employment in Vermont was holding its own, but that most people were underpaid compared to what they needed. Getting wages and salaries up to par was the central economic challenge confronting the state, he said at the time.

Two years later, Lt. Gov. Scott made the same point by observing few, if any of the people he had spoken to had gotten raises in the past 4-5 years. That's largely a function though, of employers only being able to pay what they can, given what the market will bear, or what they have to pay to retain essential employees who can't be easily replaced.

In short, there are jobs - but they just don't pay very much or enough to live on - or live on well.

Viewed from a more detached perspective, Vermont would not outwardly seem to be doing all that badly. Our unemployment rate has consistently tracked below the national average since the fall of 2008, when the national economy imploded. Housing prices are stabilizing and those businesses which survived the whirlwind of the first few years of the Great Recession have, more or less, made the necessary adjustments. Tourism has held steady, at least according to official numbers. Talk to local merchants around the Northshire and you might get a different sense of things, but traffic still seemed heavy this past weekend.

"Affordability" is a complex question that eventually takes in all sorts of factors, from tax rates, to business climate, to demographics, to energy costs, to health care costs, to electric rates, to innovation, creativity and how Vermont fits in to the global forces that are reshaping the world economy. Those would include the stunning pace of technological change and the flattening of global supply chains and distribution networks. It would also include other factors like educational achievement, crime levels and that rubbery concept known as "quality of life." How much value do you place on being able to look out at a spectacular mountain vista, or being able to go snowboarding 15 minutes from now?

Those things are worth something, but first you have to pay the rent. And for whatever reason - and no doubt Vermont is not the only state experiencing this - the margins seem to be getting tighter. Perception or reality?

One thing is fairly certain - those Vermonters with marketable skills will eventually emigrate when better opportunities beckon - and beckon they will. An affordability gap will hopefully not be followed by a "best and brightest" gap, but it's hard not to wonder about that.

Now for the hard part - what to do about it? Is it time for an experiment in "Little Government?" How might that work?