Vermont is strange. As a community, the Green Mountain state is an unlikely menage of back-to-the-land hippies and GTFO-my-land libertarians. But for those of us who spend most of our time living and laboring in loud, congested, and increasingly expensive cities, it’s also a fantasy — a woodsy, flowering, maple syrup-coated escape from everything that ails us. So it’s no wonder that the Internet lost its shit last week when Vermont announced that it will offer limited grants of $10,000 to remote workers who are game for relocating to the state and committing to live there.
Here’s how it works. Eligible applicants who move to Vermont as soon as January of 2019 can receive up to $5,000 per calendar year from the state, for a maximum time period of two years. The grant money can be used to cover things such as relocation costs, computer and software purchases, broadband access, and membership to a coworking space. To qualify for the program, you need to have a full-time job with an employer based outside of Vermont, but the majority of the work that you do has to be performed remotely.
The rationale behind the initiative is actually pretty serious. Vermont has been struggling to replenish its small, aging population, which has made it tougher for Vermont employers to fill labor positions in recent years. To that end, the state is also rolling out a series of “Stay to Stay” weekend programs, in which Vermont tourists contemplating a move can meet with real estate agents and business communities.
The idea of offering people free stuff in order to revitalize a population-starved area is nothing new. One of the earliest examples happened in 1850, when Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act. This bill offered free land in Oregon’s barely-settled Willamette Valley to homesteaders who were willing to live on the land and develop it, as portrayed in the popular PBS reality series, Frontier House.
The Vermont incentive program is basically an opportunity for the state government to go shopping for a very particular kind of resident.
More recently, a handful of U.S. cities and states have tried offering similar incentives to attract new residents. In 2011, a consortium of Detroit employers offered loans and cash assistance for workers who bought or rented property in downtown neighborhoods. Today, if you’re open to building a home in cities such as Curtis, Kansas and Harmony, Minnesota you can score free land and construction rebates. And if you’re a healthcare professional willing to rough it in a more rural region, the state government in Washington will forgive up to $75,000 of your medical school loans, provided you don’t take too many sick days.
But the move-to-Vermont incentive program is different. You don’t have to twist someone’s arm to convince them that hiking, nordic skiing, organic farm stands, swimming holes, and fresh Heady Topper beer are the cornerstones of a sumptuous life. And unlike the aforementioned programs, Vermont’s initiative targets remote workers, which makes the whole thing feel a little more in tune with the projected future of labor.
According to Joan Goldstein, the commissioner of Vermont’s Department for Economic Development, the state wants to make it easy for people to set up shop in Vermont, and part of making that transition as pleasant as possible is cutting out the task of hunting for a new job. “What we’re offering is really just a way for people to become aware that there are opportunities here,” Goldstein told CityLab last week, acknowledging that grant recipients might choose to look for a local job later.
But the focus on remote workers is odd, considering that Vermont is having such a tough time filling local jobs. Even more notable is the requirement that grant recipients must have not only a job that’s performed remotely, but a full-time remote job, which shrinks the eligibility pool considerably. While it’s true that more Americans are spending some their waking hours doing remote work, most don’t have the option to do this, especially on a full-time basis. And if you’re a farm laborer, a motel clerk, or an assembly line manager, getting your work done from home or a coworking bar isn’t an option at all. Coincidentally, agriculture, manufacturing, and customer service happen to be three of the biggest occupational fields in Vermont.
So why not offer cash grants to people who are willing to move to Vermont and get a local job in any of these industries — or at least widen the eligibility window to include those without full-time remote jobs?
In its current form, the Vermont incentive program is basically an opportunity for the state government to go shopping for a very particular kind of resident — one who will bring their job with them, not soak up too many state resources that are meant for the poor, and in all likelihood, pay higher income taxes than those who work with their bodies. The author and historian Thomas Frank calls this rarified group of upper middle class income earners “the professional class.” They have careers, as opposed to jobs, and their economic power gives them more choices, such as buying land or a house, getting an advanced degree, and moving to a new city or state. And that’s the thing about paying people to relocate: There has to be a perk for the government or business council paying for the new resident incentives, and often, that perk is concentrating economic power in a place that could use the boost.
Earlier this year, The Outline’s Gaby Del Valle wrote about an ad campaign that was designed to persuade young professionals in Chicago to relocate to Wisconsin. The ads — which began popping up on the subway lines that run through Chicago’s most affluent neighborhoods — depicted well-heeled Millennials leading lives of cultivated decadence in the Badger State. Considering that Chicago is one of the most racially segregated cities in America, it means something that these ads only appeared in the ritziest corners of the city — areas that are predominately white.
What Wisconsin did is a particularly gross example of new resident hunting, but it’s hard to look at the stipulations attached to the move-to-Vermont program and not feel a similar chill of exclusion. In 2015, people of color made up less than 10 percent of the white-collar workforce in America, and there’s no indication that this has changed significantly. And the idea of Vermont incentivizing an overwhelmingly white demographic of workers is particularly nauseating when you consider that, according to U.S. Census figures, it’s already a whopping 94.6 percent Caucasian.
Back in March, I wrote about a couple of upper-middle class frugality bloggers from Cambridge, Massachusetts who made some smart investments and bought a gorgeous rural property in Vermont. Their story had been picked up by major papers like The Guardian and framed as a romantic back-to-nature tale: kind of a modern day Laura Ingalls Wilder narrative. Even the couple themselves honed in on that borrowed 19th Century nostalgia, referring to their new digs as their “homestead” — a term that many associate with the era when families settled the frontier and led idyllic little lives there.
But there was a catch to homesteading: a stipulation written into the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which sparked the homesteader migration to the American west.
You had to be white to move there.