October 15, 2015
(This opinion piece appeared in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus on October 15, 2015, and will appear in other media in the days ahead.)
Since the legislature adjourned this spring, my friends, neighbors and constituents have asked me what their elected officials did this year to help “the little guy.” In most cases, they are referring to middle and working class Vermonters who are striving to pay their bills, keep their families healthy and safe, and meet the day-to-day demands of jobs, homes, and communities. It’s an important question, and one that’s worth digging into.
Distinguishing the middle class in Vermont is difficult because our income groups don’t diverge all that much. Most of us consider ourselves “the little guy” and the facts bear that out. In a state of 314,000 income tax payers, most of us – about 270,000 – make less than $100,000 a year. More starkly, about 200,000 of our Vermont taxpayers make less than $50,000 – that’s 63%. It’s probably useful to point out that Vermont considers a “livable wage” income for an individual to be approximately $33,000. The balance of Vermonters, nearly 320,000 people, don’t file income taxes because they’re someone’s dependent or have income too low to file income taxes.
Using these figures, it’s clear that the great majority of us – nearly 80% of Vermonters – are middle and working class. A cursory review of employment data indicates that we work as teachers, nurses, farmers, mental health professionals, truck drivers, child care providers, home health aides, hotel & restaurant staff, small business employees (and owners!), municipal employees, and more. That’s us!
To give us “little guys” a fair shot at financial security, over the last few years, Democrats in the legislature started leveling the playing field. First, we made it illegal to pay women less than men for equal work and experience. Second, we raised the minimum wage so that a full-time employee can make at least $19,000 this year and $21,840 by 2018. Third, we gave home health workers and childcare workers the right to collectively bargain for fair wages and common-sense workplace protections. Fourth, we guaranteed that workers on state-funded projects could not be paid less than the industry’s prevailing wage. Fifth, Democrats in the House passed a Paid Leave Bill that allows the nearly 60,000 Vermont workers without access to sick leave the ability to earn time away from work to care for a sick child, parent or themselves.
We also passed an economic development bill that included first-time homebuyer down payment assistance. We championed a comprehensive energy law that will save electric ratepayers –— homeowners and businesses alike –— hundreds of millions of dollars. We invested more money in fixing roads and bridges, knowing all too well the impact of front-end, alignment, and tire repair costs on a “little guy’s” bank account. And while Vermont Health Connect, a federally- mandated program, has rightfully earned a lot of grief for the implementation of the software, it has provided affordable health insurance coverage to thousands of Vermonters who would otherwise accrue massive debt and rely on taxpayer-funded safety nets to pay for common and catastrophic health events.
The Democratic majority is working with the reality of shrinking federal help to take care of our children, elders, the sick and disabled, and other vulnerable Vermonters. Our investments, especially during the Great Recession, have prevented a total disaster in our human services system. Despite the broad and fundamentally fair impact of these policies, Republican lawmakers and business-backed lobbyists mounted hefty and disturbing opposition to most of the bills noted above. Rather than join us in crafting policies that will give the middle and working class a fair shake, they evangelize for more tax breaks for those who don’t need them and for cutting services to Vermonters in need.
Nearly everyone in Vermont is a “little guy,” and looking out for them by reshaping fundamental economic policies has resulted in a meaningful base recovery from the Great Recession. Now it’s time to start building on that foundation. Democrats know that our work to improve the living and working conditions for all Vermonters isn’t over. We know that 80% of Vermonters, “the little guys,” depend on us to keep looking out for them — so they can work, play and grow old in this wonderful state.