Saturday, June 14, 2008

"Letters from Vermont," with the rural angle overlooked

One of the most emailed stories in the NYTimes today is Bob Herbert's column, "Letters from Vermont." In it, he reprints excerpts from several letters sent by Vermonters to Senator Bernie Sanders. They are compelling tales of hardship, as reflected in this excerpt:

“This winter, after keeping the heat just high enough to keep my pipes from bursting (the bedrooms are not heated and never got above 30 degrees) I began selling off my woodworking tools, snowblower, (pennies on the dollar) and furniture that had been handed down in my family from the early 1800s, just to keep the heat on.

“Today I am sad, broken, and very discouraged. I am thankful that the winter cold is behind us for a while, but now gas prices are rising yet again. I just can’t keep up.”

Nowhere is "rural" mentioned in Herbert's column, but it seems implicit that a great deal of his hardship is associated with rural economics and rural hardship. With a population of just 608,000, Vermont is a rural state by many (any?) measures, including those associated with various Department of Justice Programs. Its population density is 65.8 per square mile. The largest city is Burlington, population under 40,000, which makes even Burlington non-metropolitan (albeit "micropolitan").

Of course, with inflation having a huge impact on food and fuel prices, even as a contracting economy has led to fears of recession, things are tough all over. But as rural economists have often documented, rural places tend to suffer more during economic downturns and benefit less from upturns. Law and policy makers in Vermont have no doubt seen this phenomenon before, so it is perhaps not surprising that the state declared a relief program this week, making it the first state I've heard of to respond to the current crunch.

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