Policy changes are needed to make sure all Vermonters have a shot at a good life — and that's good for all of us.
Income inequality is a widely discussed issue these days. President Obama talks about it. Paul Krugman writes about it. Even Mitch McConnell and John Boehner think it’s bad. There is a lot of talk but not a lot of action.
Imagine if we, in Vermont, could tackle income inequality at one of its roots.
A major cause of income inequality is inequality of opportunity.
Unequal opportunity starts very early in a person’s life, before a child enters school.
Besides the obvious factors like parents’ income, there are more subtle differences. Some families have more books and read to their children more often than others. Many parents work two jobs and don’t have as much time to spend with their children. This includes time to speak with them and, in the process, develop the child’s vocabulary.
These factors have profound effects on a child’s preparation for school. Some children begin their education with more than double the vocabulary of others. They are immediately ahead on the opportunity curve.
Social skills, problem-solving skills, and verbal skills all begin and advance before a child enters kindergarten. Inequality in these skills before the age of five means opportunity is already unequal.
Inequality most often follows a person. You start out behind an eight ball and, most often, you continue being behind.
Can we change this? Of course we can. We just have to want to.
We also have to be willing to commit the resources to make it possible for all of Vermont’s children to enter school with relative equality.
We can create a quality statewide pre-kindergarten program for all of Vermont’s children. We have made some significant, but small, steps toward this goal.
We need to do more.
* * *
WHY DO I CARE? I care for moral reasons. I care because equality of
opportunity is right. I care because equality of opportunity is fair.
But I also care for practical reasons.
I’m president of Chroma Technology Corp., a high-tech manufacturing company in Bellows Falls. To continue to be successful, Chroma needs a high-quality workforce.
Our need goes beyond our engineering needs. It goes beyond our sales force. It goes beyond our executive team. Our need for a high-quality workforce extends to every aspect of our manufacturing process.
Modern manufacturing workers are expected to know math, have computer skills, solve problems, and participate in improving the manufacturing and quality systems.
Just as the modern auto needs computers to run, so does the modern plant require computers to help run our equipment.
Our machines don’t run without people, and my colleagues can’t run the machines without being computer literate.
* * *
VERMONTERS HAVE a choice; we can grow a high-quality workforce in
Vermont, or we can import one from the outside.
It’s a rhetorical choice. Which one of us would prefer us to import a workforce? Which one of us prefers to imagine the alternative: Vermonters relegated to low-paying jobs when high-paying jobs are available?
Quality pre-kindergarten is good but not sufficient. Nothing can replace a quality relationship between a child and parents or parent.
To help guarantee that relationship, we need to guarantee that parents have paid time off to care for their children when they are sick, to care for themselves when they are sick, to recharge when they exhaust themselves from the grind of work.
Sixty thousand Vermonters are not eligible for paid time off; they get neither vacation time nor sick time nor time to care for their children.
This is wrong.
How can we accept the option of parents sending a sick child to school, or going to work, because they can’t afford to take an unpaid day off?
How can we accept the option that the sick child will infect other children or that the sick parent will infect other workers?
Some in the business community say that even though they support and give their workers paid time off, they don’t want the state to mandate it.
I’m trying not to smirk. Remember the 60,000 Vermonters without any paid time off?
How do these business people propose to get their counterparts, who don’t provide paid time off, to change their policies?
Clearly, their positive examples haven’t worked. Don’t you think society has a right to mandate a small amount of vacation time or sick time or taking-care-of-sick-kids time? We mandated the 40-hour work week. Was that also a bad idea? We mandate a minimum wage. Is that also a bad idea?
* * *
THERE ARE BILLS before our legislature that relate to these issues.
One bill would mandate a very limited amount of earned paid time off. Another bill would establish a blue-ribbon commission to research financing options for high-quality, affordable child care. There are efforts to further the limited pre-kindergarten plans adopted a year ago.
It’s time for my colleagues in the business community to support these efforts.
After all, we are the beneficiaries.
Paul Millman is president of Bellows Falls-based Chroma Technology Corp. He lives in Westminster.