Love him or hate him, one has to concede that Bernie Sanders has had a tremendous impact on the political direction of Vermont over the past quarter century plus. His influence has reverberated throughout the Green Mountains and in our State House. He has had spawned many acolytes in the activist community and in the halls of power.
Over his political career, Sanders has been remarkably consistent with his democratic/socialist, populist message, which he now wants to bring to the national stage in a run for president. A major theme for “Bernie 2016” will be the consequences of rising income inequality. This begs the question, what has Bernie Sanders done for income inequality here in Vermont? What does his long legacy of helping the little guy by taking on big corporations and “the rich” in his home state really look like?
Two studies shed some light on the answer.
New England Has the Highest Increase in Income Disparity in the Nation (2007) by Ross Gittell and Jason Rudokas of the Carsey Institute of the University of New Hampshire states that since 1992, two years after Sanders was first elected to congress,
Three states in the region—Connecticut, Vermont and Massachusetts—ranked among the top five in income disparity increases. Over the last 15 years [1992-2007],… Vermont went from being a low income-disparity state to a median disparity state.
Not good! A more recent study (2014), The Demograpy of Inequality in the United States, by Mark Mather and Beth Jarosz, concludes:
…since 1999, Illinois, Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin experienced the largest increases in inequality. [Emphasis added]
Also not good! In other words, since Bernie Sanders became a political force, spreading his unique brand of politics across Vermont, income inequality in our state has gone from an insignificant problem to one of the most striking examples of the phenomenon in the nation. That is the record.
Some might try to argue that these are state issues and Sanders is a national politician. However, Sanders’ real influence has been far greater in Montpelier than in Washington D.C.
Though he does not call himself a Progressive, Sanders gave rise to the Progressive Party in Vermont when he ran for Burlington Mayor in 1981. The Progressives became an official, major political party in 1999. Today’s Progressive Senate Caucus Leader, Anthony Pollina (P-Washington), was Sanders’ policy advisor from 1991-1996, and the House Progressive Caucus Leader, Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), also got his start on Sanders’ political team. These are just the most high profile Sanders protégés, but there are many more peppered throughout the political landscape. Robert Millar, a recent Executive Director for the Progressive Party, was office manager for Sanders’ 2012 campaign. He left to be an activist consultant, then ran for local public office. That’s the pattern.
As a result, since Sanders was elected to Congress in 1990, Vermont has adopted a number of “small p” progressive policies, heralded at passage as “historic.” The legislature mandated Guaranteed Issue and Community Rating for health insurance (1991 and 1992). Around this time the state began to break away from the federal minimum wage and, over time, has come to mandate some of the highest entry-level wages in the country. Vermont passed Act 60 (1997) for financing our education system, and with its “income sensitivity” provisions, making it the most progressive property tax structure in the country. On top of that, Vermont now spends more per pupil on K-12 education than any other state, and just won recognition for doing more than any other state in regard to providing access to universal pre-k (Act 62, 2006). Vermont has moved aggressively toward providing government-subsidized healthcare for all with Act 48 (2011). We have created one of, if not the, most progressive income tax structures in the country, and, arguably, provide the most generous social welfare benefits.
From 1856 to 1988, Vermont voted Republican in every presidential election except one. Since then, Bernie Sanders and his followers have pulled the state to the left, earning Vermont the reputation as one of the most liberal in the nation (Gallup, 2012). The net result of this progressive, spread-the-wealth, Sanders-inspired policy drift: We have done serious damage to our middle class, our young and educated population is fleeing, and the income inequality problem in Vermont appears to be among the worst in the nation.
I certainly hope Bernie Sanders attracts serious attention in his bid for the Democratic nomination for president. It’s time that his legacy of democratic/socialist and Progressive policy in Vermont gets the scrutiny it deserves from the national press, and the candidate is forced for the first time in his career to answer some hard questions. Now that would be a bit of social justice.
- Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.