Burlington’s income disparities have ripple effects, data shows

The Christmas tree on the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington earlier this month. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The latest Census data for Vermont is largely unsurprising. It shows a state with a rural, aging demographic and shrinking population. 

Yet one municipality seems to defy those trends. Burlington, the largest city in Vermont, is also the youngest. It’s one of the few places in the state with a growing population and incomes that are rising at a faster pace than the state average.

But that growth has also led to unique challenges. New Census data show that Burlington’s median household income remains below the county and state median, revealing the struggles of many of residents. 

And while it’s not the only place in the state with rising housing costs, Burlington’s relatively low income levels and high housing demand have led to a large chunk of the population spending more than 30% of incomes on housing — the accepted standard for affordability. 

“Burlington’s challenges as a city are different than in rural communities,” said Emily Beam, a professor of economics at the University of Vermont. “It’s got a lot of people coming in, a lot of stuff happening — but its challenge is serving many different needs.”

A pattern of lower income

The most recent demographic data at a city level is the Census’ American Community Survey, which averages figures for Burlington and other towns between 2015 and 2019. 

That 2015-2019 snapshot puts Burlington’s median household income — its average income across all households — at $51,394, lower than the state median of $61,973 and far lower than the Chittenden County median of $73,647. 

Burlington also has a higher poverty rate. Census data shows 8.9% of Burlington residents earn less than $10,000 a year, nearly double the state and county rate. 

The Queen City is also distinct from its neighbors at higher ranges of income. The percentage of people earning $75,000 or above is far lower than in the rest of Chittenden County.

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Beam suggested part of the disparity may be due to Burlington’s very young population. The median age in Burlington is 27, well below the rest of the state, and the city is the site of several universities.

Younger people earn less on average than older residents, potentially driving Burlington’s numbers down, she said.

Data by age range shows that even older Burlington residents earn less than their Chittenden County counterparts. 

Burlington mirrors a nationwide pattern. People who can afford to are leaving cities to get a little more space and other amenities, Beam said.

But not everyone can afford to buy a home or live far from work. About half of Burlington residents commute by car to work, Census data shows, below the Chittenden County rate of 72%. (It’s unclear how many have cars but choose not drive, or are carless by choice.)

“If you’re in a fairly urban area and don’t have your own transportation,” you’re stuck relying on public transportation, Beam said.

Burlington’s low income rates may also be a reflection of statewide disparities in income by race. White, non-Hispanic Vermont households have a median income of $63,000, compared with $39,000 for Black Vermonters and $48,000 for Hispanic Vermonters.

As one of the most diverse cities in the state, racial income disparities could be reflected in the Burlington data, Beam said.

“There’s everything from some folks working at the hospital or UVM, to folks who are refugees with a lower income because they’re transitioning to life in a new place,” she said.

Income and the home

It’s no secret Burlington is in a housing crunch. Advocates and officials in the area say the rising tide of population and jobs have led to a lack of affordable housing

Census data shows that Burlington housing is among the most expensive in Vermont. Burlington is 16th in the state in terms of median housing costs for renters. 

A quarter of Burlington homeowners and 57% of renters spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs, suggesting that housing in the city is not affordable, according to Census data.

The higher housing costs are, the harder it is for people to protect themselves from economic uncertainty, Beam said.

“You have less money to save up for down payments, and less cushion for things like — well, a pandemic,” she said.

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An emergency expense in that situation can send someone to the brink of homelessness, she said.

How the Statehouse can help

Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington, said she wasn’t surprised by the disparity in income between those who live in Burlington and those who live in nearby towns. 

When she served on the Burlington City Council from 2014 to 2017, she reviewed the data regularly. The patterns remain the same, Colburn said. 

“I’m very aware of the acute poverty and concentration of need in Burlington,” she said. “I wasn’t surprised by the data, but I suspect others might be.

“It clearly doesn’t fit the kind of narrative and assumptions about Burlington that folks have sometimes around the state,” she said. 

Burlington is the state’s most populous city and is seen as an economic hub, Colburn said. Her colleagues in the Statehouse sometimes don’t include the city in conversations about where economic aid or services are needed most. She said she’s seen this manifest in conversations about where to send money for addiction services or homeless shelters. 

This new Census data should serve as a reminder, Colburn said, that while significant wealth is generated in Burlington, the benefits travel with workers who live in neighboring cities and towns. 

“The cost of owning a home in Burlington is so great that it does drive people who want to own a home, they get driven actually out of Burlington into the surrounding area,” Colburn said. By the end of her last term on the city council, Colburn said a three-bedroom home could sell for $500,000 in her district. About 60% of residents in Burlington are renters.

One place to begin addressing income inequality, she said, is proposing a tax for companies whose executives have an exorbitant gap in pay ratio between themselves and their employees. Colburn, the House Progressive leader, said she is drafting legislation for the coming session that would lower the executive pay gap. 

She also wants to find a way to address income inequality in rural and urban areas by reforming the way the state funds schools.

Senate Education Committee Chair Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, is also looking at structural changes to school funding. 

Baruth and Colburn pointed to a recently published study, conducted by the University of Vermont, Rutgers University and the American Institutes for Research, that reevaluated how Vermont should be spending education dollars. 

School funding is calculated, in part, by how much it costs to teach each student. Some students who are English language learners, low-income or live in rural areas cost more to teach, and are weighted differently for school budgets. The study found that Vermont hasn’t adequately funded education for students who fall in these categories. 

“I think people throw around the word Burlington as if it’s synonymous with wealth,” Baruth said. “Actually, the core of Burlington has a great deal of the free and reduced lunch student population living at or near the poverty level.” 

Last session, Baruth said his committee moved a reform bill in line with the study’s recommendations, but when Covid-19 hit, it remained on the wall of the Senate Finance Committee where it died. Baruth said he’ll introduce the legislation again this session, in an effort to properly fund schools with struggling populations and increase the chances of social and economic mobility. 

“There’s precedent in the Statehouse against Chittenden County, and Burlington in particular,” Baruth said. “It’s ordinarily a complete misunderstanding of the situation in the core of Burlington. 

“People think, ‘Oh, if you’re from Burlington you have all the advantages,” he said. “The truth is … there is generational poverty that has been resistant to all sorts of efforts for change.”