Comments to Lamoille Family Center Annual Meeting – 6/20/18

Many thanks. It’s an honor to be invited home to be with you all tonight. I greatly appreciate the work you do on behalf of Lamoille County’s families and communities.

I want to bring forth a few ideas that I believe are consistent with your mission and values.

First, we know that investing in the determinants of child, family, and community well-being is vastly more cost-effective than trying to remediate the damage done by bad policy investments or, worse, neglect. The child who is hungry, homeless, abused, ill, or lacks access to daycare, education, or health services will inevitably show up in our emergency rooms, on our court dockets, in our prisons or in need of some relief from our overburdened social-safety net. Such a child’s future chances of good health, educational success, and employment security are vastly diminished and guaranteed to burden the system.

As a society and as a state, we must re-focus our resources on the preventive work that you and others like you are doing. Our upfront investments now as a society will save us money in the long run, money taxpayers will only foot the bill for later on. Recently, regulators have allowed much of the fund surplus of UVM Medical Center, Vermont’s largest healthcare network provider, to be reinvested in the determinants of mental and physical well-being – affordable housing, nutrition programs, childcare etc. This is a positive trend.

A few examples of our backwards priorities… we invest $180M a year on corrections and half that amount on our four state colleges. A single emergency room visit costs more than several years’ worth of well-child visits. Why does DCF (Dept of Children & Families) have the second-highest per capita child-removal rate in the country? Why do the lion’s share of Vermont’s opiate addiction problems stem from prescribed not street drugs when we’ve known its addictive properties since the opium wars between Britain and China in the 19th century? Perhaps because we allowed Pharma to spend $240M on lobbying and $27B on drug marketing last year and have only recently begun to consider serious regulation.

Furthermore, congress is paralyzed in an ideological war between those who believe in minimal taxation, regulation, and government services and those who believe that reasonable, tax-based government services in certain areas play a beneficial role in the economic and social well-being of our citizens. Our country’s polarization around this has generated funding chaos in social services, health care, education, and in infrastructure investment. Government minimalists would push many social services into the non-profit or philanthropic sector and some traditional government services like military, post-office, and public transportation into the private sector. We’re currently watching this strategy under Thatcher unravel painfully in Britain. As long as this deadlock continues, we’ll have no clear path forward, either in prevention or mitigation.

Social and economic stability initiatives get lobbed back and forth between the philanthropic and the government sectors like a hot potato. Government contracts some services in the non-profit sector, provides certain others, and relies entirely on the non-profit or business sector to do the rest. Before we can ever really advance your important work, we will need to come to some compromise agreement on the appropriate roles and responsibilities of government.

Another challenge – we’re a tiny state with 620,000 people, about 340,000 of whom file income tax returns and just about 170,000 of whom must include a check. The income tax contributes about 25% of our budget and property tax about 33%. The rest of our $5.8B budget comes from the federal government. Unlike most other blue states, we’re dependent on Washington. This dependency on mercurial national resources and the small scale of our own resources means we can’t afford either redundancy or competition. (i.e. day care – public education model) Furthermore philanthropic and business funders increasingly demand collaboration and accountability for mission as you all model so well in your Results-based Accountability commitment.

Finally, even as we revere our past and our rich traditions, they can blind us to fast-paced changes in the real world around us. Globalization, disparity in wealth accumulation, automation, addiction, and e-commerce have all disrupted our communities. When I lived here… Morrisville is different today.

We must really come to grips with these problems sooner rather than later. We must be willing to think long-term and take risks. I worry that we’re merely tinkering around the edges of our past, adding complexity and expense, rather than questioning the purpose and desired outcomes of our myriad programs with the courage to reinvent. We’re small enough so we can still take risks, try new initiatives, succeed and even fail occasionally. But we’ll need to be bold. We’ll need to choose leaders motivated by service rather than career… leaders who can tolerate political risk in the hopes of a better future. While, we must not flag in our efforts to alleviate the effects of and decriminalize poverty, we’ll need to keep redirecting our finite investments toward prevention… supporting our children, families, and communities, as you all do so well here.

I’m happy to take questions or challenges. Thank you for all you do to make Vermont a better place.

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