Capstone Community Action

Updated: Feb 22



A widening gap between the wealthiest and the poorest Americans has been among the most important discussions in our country over the past few decades. Rather than seeing resources go to those in need Americans are frustrated in seeing the wealthy accrue more power and having policy and development cater to their desires. Here we will discuss the presence of wealth disparity in Waterbury Vermont, a community in Washington County, central Vermont, specifically from the period of 2000 to 2020. Using the best available data, we discern that a widening gap in wealth over time is strongly supported by trends in housing price and development, apparent divides in income in the community, and indicators of extreme poverty.


We’ll begin our analysis of wealth disparity in Waterbury with an overview of important statistics and general trends to create context. The town has climbed steadily in population for decades, increasing from 4,915 in the year 2000 (UVM Rural Studies) to 5,155 in 2019 (US Census Bureau). Town officials have approximated this to a growth of about 15 people per year (2018 Waterbury Municipal Plan). Meanwhile, population growth in the last decade has halted in Washington County, indicating that Waterbury is among one of the more desirable places to buy a home in the area (UVM Rural Studies and Census). Poverty rate in the town went from 6.1% in 2000 down to 4.4% in 2010, and then shot up to 10.9% in 2019 (UVM Rural Studies and Census). This is a noteworthy spike in the last decade.

In terms of Jobs, the town has kept a consistent record of full employment with an unemployment rate of about 5% or lower consistently over the last two decades, aside from crises like the great recession, tropical storm Irene, and the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting labor markets. The unemployment rate in Waterbury as of August 2020 is 4.6% (Homefacts). Employment in Waterbury is diverse. Government workers account for about 30% of Waterbury’s workforce because of the massive employer that is the Waterbury State Office Complex. Other big employers in the town are the Ben and Jerry’s Factory and Keurig Green Mountain, which employ a combined 1500 people (2018 Waterbury Municipal Plan). Throughout Washington County, businesses with less than 20 employees comprise 90% of private businesses and 38% of private employment, indicating a strong representation of small businesses in the town as well (Central VT Regional Plan). This demonstrates a wide range of jobs available in the community leading in turn to a range in socioeconomic status.


The strong presence of the Waterbury State Office Complex creates greater economic inequality than in surrounding communities. Government jobs tend to give better than average salary and benefits, contributing to Waterbury’s high average wage of $57,300 in 2017 as opposed to $50,300 in Washington County and $46,100 in central Vermont (2018 Waterbury Municipal Plan). Another possible contributor to Wealth disparity is the growing presence of Tourism and resort communities in the region geared towards the upper class, and seasonal homeowners growing from 59 to 116 in Waterbury over the span of 2000 to 2010 (UVM Rural Studies). Retail sales also grew by 31% from 2005 to 2017 and showed no negative impact of tropical storm Irene, likely on account of a growing tourism industry. Tourism in the town flourishes due to the ski lodges, fall foliage, and the Ben and Jerry’s Factory, which happens to be the number one tourist attraction in Vermont (Ben and Jerry’s). Tourism has the potential to create jobs but this is only beneficial if prices do not increase beyond the wages of those jobs, many of which are relatively low income.


Race is an important area to address in terms of wealth inequality in this country. One trend in Waterbury that holds consistent with Vermont is extreme whiteness. 96.9% of Waterbury residents identified as white alone in 2019 (US Census). Whether this trend is changing is inconclusive due to small sample sizes. However, one sample showed that non-white identifying residents in Waterbury had a much higher chance of being in poverty, indicating that wealth is less accessible to non-white residents (City-Data).

Technology and education are also important factors for creating access to wealth. According to Census Data, 87.8% of households in Waterbury had a computer and 83.3% had a broadband internet subscription, and 48.1% had a bachelor’s degree or higher in the period 2014-2018 demonstrating room for improvement in making wealth accessible to all residents.


Another important trend is the rising median age in Waterbury, falling in line with Vermont as a whole. The median age of Waterbury residents rose from 38 to 43 from 2000 in 2010, following similar trends to Washington county and the rest of the state. We’ve already mentioned the influx of recreational or seasonal housing which makes up 11% of the housing stock in Central Vermont (CVT Regional Plan). This ends up leaving fewer resources for young and low-income people as resources are directed at this new demographic.

Possibly the most important issue exposed by data gathered in the last two decades is that housing is becoming more and more unaffordable to Waterbury residents of low and middle income. Median housing unit value went up notably from $130,700 to $290,600 from 2000 to 2010, a change of more than double (UVM Rural Studies). Prices went back down to $274,100 in the period of 2014-2018 (Census). These prices were likely highly influenced by the great recession. In addition, median rent went up from $580 in 2000, to $811 2010, then to $912 in the period from 2014-2018, reflecting another dramatic increase (UVM Rural Studies and Census). In order to gauge the affordability of this housing to residents we have to look at trends in income comparably. Statistics show that median household income grew from 44,940 to 63,798 from 2000 to 2010 but only grew to $64,850 in 2019 (UVM Rural Studies and Census). This means that household incomes are decisively not keeping pace with increased housing costs. While median household income increased by 44.3% over the span of 2000 to 2019, median household cost increased by 109.7% over the same period.

Commonly “Affordable housing” is considered to be that which a household can spend 30% of its income for up to 80% of the median household income. In 2007-2011 the census bureau found that 40% of homes in Central Vermont spend over 30% of their income on housing (CVT Regional Plan). Similar results are shown with state data. In 2007, a Vermont household would have needed a $66,000 annual household income to afford the median household price of $197,000, an income 76% of Vemonters did not make. One effect of this is that buyers start to turn to more affordable mobile homes. 43 homes were sold in Waterbury in 2012, and 38 of these were mobile homes (2018 Waterbury Municipal Plan). Mobile homes also make up a whole 7% of the housing stock in Central Vermont (CVT Regional Plan).


Another alternative to buying a traditional home is renting. As we’ve already mentioned rents have gone up 57.4% in the last two decades. Although it provides another option it is still quite difficult for low-income residents to afford. According to census data 93% of impoverished residents in Waterbury rent, while only 50% of those above poverty rent (City-Data). However, this still creates conflict and an opportunity for lower-income residents to be edged out. For example, in 2005, an estimated 7,058 affordable rental units were available in Washington county, but 50% of these were owned by upper-income households and an additional 5% were vacant, leaving only 45% occupied by those in need (CVT Regional Plan).


In addition to increasing in price, housing developments are building larger houses despite fewer people per household, and being built farther away from town centers, catering towards older and higher-income homeowners. Regional and municipal plans emphasize the importance of vibrant town centers with clustered housing surrounded by rural countryside to Vermont’s development history. However development trends toward housing away from these town centers and at lower density (CVT Regional Plan). These types of homes are farther away from jobs and resources and require an automobile. Higher prices and more barriers cater to those who have already accumulated wealth rather than young lower-income individuals. The physical size of a single-family home in central Vermont has also increased by 62% from 1975 to 2005 despite the number of people per household decreasing. In central Vermont from 1990 to 2000 according to the CVT Regional plan average people per household decreased from 2.64 to 2.47 and was even lower in Waterbury at 2.27 in 2010 (CVT Regional Plan and Census). What we’re conclusively seeing is an increase in rural to suburban Mcmansion type developments rather than housing intended for young residents in need, accentuating an already existing wealth gap.


Indicators of more extreme poverty in the area are also telling of a poverty issue. Average stays at the Good Samaritan Homeless Shelter in the nearby town of Barre increased from 1-2 weeks in 1998 to 2 months in 2004 (CVT Regional Plan). As we’ve already discussed the poverty rate has gone up significantly since the early 2000s and so it is unlikely that this problem has done anything but grown. Statistics also show a very large percentage of the disabled population of Waterbury below the poverty line, up to 50% of men and 25% of women (City-Data). In addition 43% of impoverished families were found not to have a father figure (City-Data). These are all indications of cyclical poverty in which the resources to accrue wealth are well out of reach with these additional barriers on top of an already extremely expensive housing market.


Waterbury has also weathered a significant few events that lead to economic crises on a regional and national scale. These have posed additional economic challenges to residents, especially those who are financially vulnerable. In 2011, tropical storm Irene caused $9.7 million in damages to over 200 buildings in Waterbury (NPR). It required a reconfiguring of many community spaces in order to serve the relief effort, and filled the Waterbury State Office Complex with 6 ft of water, causing many Government jobs to halt or relocate. This put many people out of work, especially government workers until a large portion were rehired to the state office complex in 2017 (2018 Waterbury Municipal Plan). Due to this significant disruption, total government jobs decreased from 2,213 to 1,200 between 2005 and 2017 (2018 Waterbury Municipal Plan). Although private-sector jobs have been more steady, overall jobs have decreased to 3,834 in 2017 since 2010 when they were highest at 4,623 (2018 Waterbury Municipal Plan). Building back from Irene since then created an opportunity for job growth but also poses risk of a dropoff in employment when those services are exhausted. Unemployment also spiked during two other crises in the last two decades: the great recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment increased upwards of 7% for periods during the great recession 2008-2010 and reached as high as 19.3% in Aril during the early stages of the COVID shutdown (Homefacts). Economic crashes such as these are hard on the community as a whole but have a disproportionate impact on those who are already struggling to make ends meet.


The evidence to support the existence of a growing wealth disparity in the town of Waterbury is strong. The decreasing affordability of housing, housing geared towards changing demographics, the growing presence of higher-income government jobs and seasonal homeowners, and worsening indicators of extreme poverty tell a clear story of a widening economic gap between the wealthy and the poor in Waterbury. Frequent economic crises call for an added urgency to address these problems and protect vulnerable residents from their impacts.


Possible solutions to these issues are varied. Authors from the Public Assets Institute recommend state-level policies to counteract a statewide growth in wealth disparity, suggesting increasing the minimum wage, and improving transportation and child care availability to help residents find work (Vermont Digger). A greater focus on young and low-income people in local policy, especially in the housing sector, is another option, as well as strengthening local organizations that help impoverished people improve their situation. Local organizations like the Children’s Literacy Fund, Capstone, and Downstreet Housing assist underserved people in getting the resources they need and are a vital asset to the community that can help inform what changes need to be made. Downstreet in particular can be a critical tool in addressing the current housing crisis in Waterbury and the surrounding area. Whatever form it takes, making the voices of lower-income residents heard and taking urgent action in bridging the wealth gap are necessary steps in keeping Waterbury a vibrant and healthy community.



How Waterbury Citizens Are Doing Economically


A widening gap between the wealthiest and the poorest Americans has been among the most important discussions in our country over the past few decades. Here we will discuss the presence of wealth disparity in Waterbury from the period of 2000 to 2020. Using the best available data, we discern that a widening gap in wealth over time is strongly supported by trends in housing price and development, apparent divides in income in the community, and indicators of extreme poverty.


The town has climbed steadily in population for decades, increasing from 4,915 in the year 2000 (UVM Rural Studies) to 5,155 in 2019 (US Census Bureau). Meanwhile, population growth in the last decade has halted in Washington County, indicating that Waterbury is among one of the more desirable places to buy a home in the area (UVM Rural Studies and Census). Poverty rate in the town went from 6.1% in 2000 down to 4.4% in 2010, and then shot up to 10.9% in 2019 (UVM Rural Studies and Census). This is a noteworthy spike in the last decade. In terms of Jobs, the town has an unemployment rate of about 5% or lower consistently over the last two decades, aside from crises like the great recession, Tropical Storm Irene, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The unemployment rate in Waterbury as of August 2020 is 4.6% (Homefacts). Employment in Waterbury is diverse. Government workers account for about 30% of Waterbury’s workforce because of the Waterbury State Office Complex [formerly the Waterbury State Hospital]. Other big employers in the town are the Ben and Jerry’s Factory and Keurig Green Mountain, which employ a combined 1500 people (2018Waterbury Municipal Plan). Keurig Green Mountain has since left town. Government jobs tend to give better than average salary and benefits, contributing to Waterbury’s high average wage of $57,300 in 2017 as opposed to $50,300 in Washington County and $46,100 in central Vermont. The growing presence of tourism and resort communities in the region geared towards the upper class, and seasonal homeowners grew from 59 to 116 in Waterbury over the span of 2000 to 2010 (UVM Rural Studies). Tourism in the town flourishes due to the ski lodges, fall foliage, and the Ben and Jerry’s Factory, which happens to be the number one tourist attraction in Vermont. Tourism has the potential to create jobs but this is only beneficial if prices do not increase beyond the wages of those jobs, many of which are relatively low income. Technology and education are also important factors. According to Census Data, 87.8% of households in Waterbury had a computer and 83.3% had a broadband internet subscription, and 48.1% had a bachelor’s degree or higher in the period 2014-2018 demonstrating room for improvement.


Another important trend is the rising median age in Waterbury, falling in line with Vermont as a whole. The median age of Waterbury residents rose from 38 to 43 from 2000 to 2010, following similar trends to the rest of the state. We’ve already mentioned the influx of recreational or seasonal housing which makes up 11% of the housing stock in Central Vermont (CVT Regional Plan). This ends up leaving fewer resources for young and lower-income people.


Possibly the most important issue exposed by data gathered in the last two decades is that

housing is becoming more and more unaffordable to Waterbury residents of low and middle income. Median housing unit value went up notably from $130,700 in 2000 up to $290,600 in 2010, a change of more than double (UVM Rural Studies). In addition, median rent went up from $580 in 2000, to $8112010, then to $912 in the period from 2014-2018, reflecting another dramatic increase (UVM Rural Studies and Census). In order to gauge the affordability of this housing to residents, we have to look at trends in income comparably. Statistics show that median household income grew from 44,940 in 2000 to $64,850 in 2019 (UVM Rural Studies and Census). This means that household incomes are decisively not keeping pace with increased housing costs. While median household income increased by 44.3% over the span of 2000 to 2019, median household cost increased by 109.7% .


Affordable Housing is considered to be spending 30% of income. In 2007-2011 the census bureau found that 40% of homes in Central Vermont spend over 30% of their income on housing (CVT Regional Plan). Similar results are shown with state data. In 2007, a Vermont household would have needed a $66,000 annual household income to afford the median household price of $197,000, an income 76% of Vemonters did not make. One effect of this is that buyers start to turn to more affordable mobile homes. 43 homes were sold in Waterbury in 2012, and 38 of these were mobile homes (2018 Waterbury Municipal Plan). Another alternative to buying a traditional home is renting. As we’ve already mentioned, rents have gone up 57.4% in the last two decades. In addition to increasing in price, housing developments are building larger houses despite fewer people per household. What we’re seeing is an increase in rural to suburban Mcmansion type developments rather than housing intended for young residents just starting out. Downstreet Housing assist underserved people in getting the resources they need and are a vital asset to the community that can help inform what changes need to be made. They can be a critical tool in addressing the current housing crisis in Waterbury and the surrounding area. Whatever form it takes, making the voices of lower-income residents heard and taking urgent action in bridging the wealth gap are necessary steps in keeping Waterbury a vibrant and healthy community.


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