Vermont is perennially ranked as one of the healthiest states in the country, but new research has uncovered findings that seem to fly in the face of that distinction. And young adults are leaving the workforce at an alarming rate due to mental and physical disabilities.
Audio from this story will be posted at approximately 11 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 12.
Joyce Manchester is one of the newer additions to the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office, but she’s not exactly an inexperienced analyst. Manchester most recently served as chief of the Long-Term Analysis Unit at the Congressional Budget Office. Prior to that, she was director of the Division of Economic Research at the Social Security Administration.
It was her roles in those positions that inspired her recent research into number of young adults in Vermont in the Social Security Disability program.
“Given my background I know that this is a big issue on the national front, and I was just curious to see how Vermont stacked up,” Manchester says.
As it turns out, Vermont, along with New Hampshire and Maine, has by far the highest rate of young adults in the program nationally. Manchester’s findings have sent a minor shockwave through the halls of the Vermont Legislature.
“I was completely surprised by what she discovered,” says Northfield Rep. Ann Donahue.
More than 5,000 people under the age of 45 are on Social Security Disability Insurance, a federally funded program for people who can’t work due to physical or mental health conditions. Caledonia Sen. Jane Kitchel, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, says it’s a statistic that has serious economic ramifications.
“It means that we have a very significant percentage, relative to other states, of our young Vermonters who are outside the workforce,” Kitchel says.
Of equal concern, according to Donahue, is the length of time that people spend on Social Security Disability once they’re enrolled in it.
“The disturbing thing to me in the data she found is that the majority of people who are enrolled pretty much stay on it permanently,” Donahue says.
Donahue and Kitchel say Vermont is missing out on the economic firepower the state relies on those younger people to provide. For Kitchel, it’s prompted a pressing question for her and other legislators to find answers to.
“What is it that’s driving this?” Kitchel asks.
Manchester has offered some theories. One possibility is a flight of youth. Young adults leave Vermont at a higher rate than most other states. The loss of ambitious professionals seeking greener pastures elsewhere, according to Manchester, might drive up the proportion of disabled Vermonters in the population that stays here.
High rates of opiate use and proactive work by state agencies to enroll people in Social Security Disability are other hypotheses. Manchester says Vermont’s low rate of uninsured might also play a role, since it means people are seeing health care providers that not only diagnose a disabling condition, but can connect them with services and programs designed to help people in need.
Donahue says it’s a problem that likely requires some kind of policy intervention.
“I think we really need to delve into the why, because we can’t tackle solutions without understanding the numbers better,” Donahue says.
Donahue and Kitchel say they plan to study the issue more in the coming legislative session.