The normally tireless scribes at VTDigger are off on a well-earned ten-day hiatus. But during their absence, they arranged for some daily postings in the form of an 11-part series on poverty in the Northeast Kingdom.
A worthy endeavor, no? The Kingdom has a long history of poverty and neglect, and its problems have been too tough for any businessperson, politician, academic, or government to solve. So why not give it a long hard look? Especially from a reporter billed as an “AP award-winning writer” who lives in the Kingdom?
Well, the answer is in the fine print. First, the Editor’s Note informs us that this series is being recycled from the St. Johnsbury Caledonian-Record, the most reactionary newspaper in Vermont. And second, we learn in a note at the end of Part One that the writer in question, Bethany Knight, has “co-authored five reports on Vermont issues produced by the Ethan Allen Institute.” Yes, that Ethan Allen Institute, dogged mouthpiece for the Ayn Randian fantasies of its founder, El Jefe General John McClaughry, sponsor of the execrable “Common Sense Radio,” which is hosted by none other than the newly-installed President of the Ethan Allen Institute, colorless ideologue Rob Roper.
The fine print also fails to provide any specifics about her “AP award-winning” work*, or name any of the newspapers where she plied her trade.
*Dirty little secret of journalism: Prizes abound. If you have a pulse and a reporting job, and you submit entries for journalism awards, you will win some. I should know; I have dozens on my resume.
So considering the sources, I have a feeling I’m about to be treated to a right-wing fabrication of history. And doggone it, Bethany Knight does not disappoint. Part One, “From Kingdom to King Dump,” spins a fable of a proud bucolic paradise that’s been devastated, and its people’s native nobility stripped away, by the predations of state government.
The fatuities contained in this essay are too many to thoroughly explore. But let’s start by noting that Knight’s essay contains no factual basis for the assertion that the Kingdom is poorer now than ever before. It quotes no experts; its only quoted sources are “a Newport activist for the poor,” “a native who moved to Boston in the 1990s,” and precisely one named source: a man named Jack Ruggles, whose family used to operate a major building in downtown Barton. Impressive. How about an example of their deep thinking?
“Vermont is not the Vermont of my childhood,” says a native who moved to Boston in the 1990s for a decent-paying job. “We never had to lock our doors. No one ever had their home broken into.”
Note that this “native” doesn’t specify the Northeast Kingdom; he talks about the entire state. And note that Knight quotes no statistics on crime to support her assertion that the Kingdom has suddenly become a place of danger and suspicion.
As for those expensive government antipoverty programs, the esteemed Mr. Ruggles yearns for the Good Ole Days when we all got by with barn-raisin’s and quiltin’ bees:
“Every town had overseers of the poor,” Ruggles say (sic). “If you needed assistance with groceries, he would go with you and the town would pay for it and help you find a place to stay. He would make sure, if you weren’t working and if you could, to help you get employed.”
And when you got sick, you took a chicken to the doctor.
The rose-colored eyes of memory becloud the painful realities of the old Kingdom. It has always been a place of grinding poverty, and the Overseers of the Poor (and the churches and the generosity of neighbor helping neighbor) were never, ever enough to blunt the harshness of Kingdom life.
Again, Knight quotes no statistics to support her depiction of a Kingdom in decline from a former Golden Age of Self-Reliance. She notes that today the NEK has the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in Vermont, but she fails to add that it has always been so. Even in the Good Ole Days.
And the spike through the heart of her mythical Kingdom?
Vermont started to churn out environmental laws that discourage, if not prohibit, manufacturing and other big employers to do business here.
Which kinda ignores some inconvenient truths. First, the Kingdom has never had much of a manufacturing base. And while it has lost some major employers, it is hardly alone in this. At one point in the essay, she claims that “manufacturing jobs are in New Hampshire.” Oh really? Any statistics to support that? Of course not.
If you think New Hampshire is a low-tax paradise of full employment, just take a drive east on US-2 to Berlin, a formerly thriving mill town that’s at least as run-down as any Northeast Kingdom community. New Hampshire’s North Country suffers from the same economic illnesses as the Kingdom: remoteness, lack of infrastructure, undereducated workforce. The vaunted “New Hampshire Advantage” in taxes and business-friendly regulation doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.
Knight includes a short list of lost NEK employers, but she fails to draw any connection to Vermont’s environmental rules. Did Ethan Allen Furniture dramatically downsize its Vermont presence because of regulation, or because it could make more money elsewhere? I think you know the answer to that one. The Kingdom, like many other benighted areas, is at the mercy of economic forces beyond its (and Vermont’s) control, including globalization, downsizing, and outsourcing.
Knight’s work may improve in future segments; it can hardly get worse. But unless she takes a sudden turn for the better, with more rigorous backing material, better sources, and fewer unsupported assertions, then this series will be a waste of the readers’ time. Based on Part One, I have to wonder why VTDigger bothered to publish it.