Poverty and Economic Development in Vermillion


I took my son to the candidate forum last week for residents running for alderman (City Council) and the mayoral position in Vermillion.

We were only able to stay for about 45 minutes–I wasn’t trying to torture my seven-year-old; I was trying to instill in him the importance of community government and being involved in the political process.  You know–good citizen stuff.

But we were able to stay for a few of the key question-and-answer segments that I wanted to hear.  One of the big questions posed by moderator Ted Muenster was about the high poverty rate in Vermillion, and what each candidate thought we could/should do to alleviate it.

Many of the candidates responded by saying what a great job our food pantry and the Welcome Table are doing by providing food and a prepared meal once a week to the less financially-stable members of our community.

I’m not here to say they aren’t doing a good job–I think those are wonderful community services, and I have had occasion to use both during my residency here.

But they don’t alleviate poverty–they alleviate one of the symptoms of poverty.

I’m not going to go into a holier-than-thou post about “teaching a man to fish” (or garden, or raise livestock)–what I am going to point out is that at least some of our candidates seem to be vastly out of touch with a fairly good-sized portion of our population and what can be done to help them.

I was heartened by some of the responses about adult education and job/skills training–though some of those seemed to be focused on  trying to funnel people into the university to get some higher education.

Perhaps I’m going against the grain a little here when I say that enrolling people in a four-year undergraduate program (assuming they don’t already have that degree) that will likely require them to go on for an advanced degree before they can apply that knowledge toward any kind of benefits-bearing, high-paying employment isn’t probably going to help much, either.

And often times the employment provided by that degree isn’t as high-paying as one would hope.  Student loan debt, while less problematic for most than credit card or mortgage debt, is still debt–and a long-term financial burden.

School hours take away from work hours as well, and may require further expenditures for things like child care and transportation.

A large portion of my online students are parents (some single) and have full-time jobs as well.  Many of them are completely maxed-out on time and money, and the stress causes many to give up their long-term educational goals for the short-term fulfillment of basic needs for themselves and their families.

And maybe that’s part of the puzzle.  For many in our population, the costs of maintaining transportation in order to get to a job, which may only pay enough to cover the child care costs incurred by going to work, is a pretty ridiculous choice to make.  Schooling seems completely out of reach in terms of both time and money.

Faced with that decision, it is no wonder some choose to simply stay home with their kids–that’s what I’d do, too.  While society may rail against “welfare mothers” or people “on the dole,” what’s more responsible–taking care of your kids or going to work at a job that only pays enough to allow you to pay someone else to take care of them?

A measure that would really help alleviate some of these types of problems is a living wage initiative.  Now, I know that will get some of the smaller employers howling (and hey–probably also the bigger ones!), but if we’re serious about curbing poverty here, we have to take steps to increase the wages of those who work but still can’t get by.

There is also a goodly segment of our population living near or below the poverty line who have all kinds of useful skills, but are unwilling to work for employers who pay minimum wage, treat their workers like–well, like wage slaves, and allow them no input on policies, procedures, work conditions or hours.

I’m not going to name any names here, but I’ve worked for quite a few employers in this town, and I’ve had some great experiences and some truly miserable ones. The best ones recognized my personhood, allowed for some flexibility in the position, and welcomed reasonable input.  Everyone who worked there was happier.

The worst ones–well, some I actually did work for, and some were near-misses.  During the aforementioned time when I had need of the food pantry, I went in to apply for a server position at a local restaurant.

I was in my mid-twenties, and I was set down at a table and handed a policy manual that included stipulations like asking a manager to inspect a towel before I was allowed to put it in a dirty linens hamper.

The idea behind that policy (and others similar to it, like my own pay being docked if I didn’t note a drink order–even if water or “no drink”–for each entrée on a ticket) was to cut costs, but the effect was to make me realize that this particular employer didn’t consider its employees responsible enough to determine whether or not a towel was dirty–or trustworthy enough not to steal drinks for customers.

What I realized, sitting there on my twenty-something birthday–broke and desperate for work with a B.A. degree under my belt and management positions on my resumé, was that I’d be paid dirt and likely be treated like crap and end up quitting or being fired for insubordination in less than a week.

I walked out and went looking for something I could swallow.

But I left, sitting at the next table, a younger woman who was also applying for a position.  She was slumped there with the policy manual and a kind of hopeless resignation on her face–like, “I guess this is how it has to be.”

I wanted to grab her arm and pull her out of there with me, but I wasn’t really in any position to help her with anything but platitudes at that point.

The truth is, I can be terribly insubordinate with employers who don’t recognize my personhood or my ability to think, reason, and be responsible.

And I know quite a few incredibly skilled, responsible people who are excellent workers and who are similarly insubordinate (see my Prairie Grass Collective post).  It’s not that they’re bad employees; it’s that they’re not willing to be treated and paid badly.

The reason for the emphasis on the and is that many young people will take a job that doesn’t pay a lot if they’re given some measure of respect and self-determination (and skills to build their resumé).

But, they may not be able to stick around if the job doesn’t cover their costs of doing the job (transportation and child care, if needed), as well as paying at least some of the other bills.  Hence the need for both better employers and better wages.

I want to tie this whole discussion back to that candidate forum my son and I went to last week, and to another question asked of the candidates–specifically about economic development and the Vermillion NOW! initiative.

For the uninitiated, Vermillion NOW! is a:

$1.5 million five-year strategic plan” to “actively recruit and attract new businesses to Clay County; establish a private sector, investor-driven Vermillion Opportunity Fund; develop a comprehensive marketing plan; create a culture of entrepreneurship; work to retain, attract, and train experienced and dependable workers;” and “provide transparency, oversight, and accountability.” [Vermillion NOW! Objectives.]

The question was posed along the lines of, “Do you support the goals of the Vermillion NOW! initiative,” and then something about further ideas/suggestions for economic development.

I’m not sure I could have thought of a more leading question–what were they supposed to say?  No?  Was this a test to make sure the candidates were on board with the bankers and real estate agencies?

And then there’s the fact that the moderator–Ted Muenster–whose name is the name of the new University student center, is one of the five co-chairs of the Vermillion NOW! leadership (along with the President of the University, for whom many of the candidates work).  No pressure there.

Nobody said no, of course, but I felt the best responses were more nuanced than a simple affirmative-and-praise model–and offered suggestions that included ideas for sustainable growth and thoughtful (which is, to my mind, different and better than “planned”) development.

A lot of candidates’ responses also had to do with the need for growth–“We’re stagnant!”  “Our population hasn’t grown in decades!”  “We have to grow!”  It seemed to me that many of the candidates (particularly the incumbents) have the “you’re either growing or dying” mindset.

And I’m not against Vermillion’s growth, per se.  Though I have noticed that a lot of the growth that has taken place in the seventeen or so years I’ve lived here has involved development in places that don’t have good access other than by motor vehicle and has involved strip malls and chain stores and restaurants.

And perhaps as a result of that kind of growth, the kind of dying I’ve seen has been of smaller, independently-owned shops and the downtown as a vibrant and walk-able, bike-able retail area.

One of the candidates gushed that Vermillion NOW! is such a great enterprise specifically because “it’s the citizens” who are doing it and not the local government/powers-that-be. Nevermind that the incumbent candidate who said this is one of the investors (and yes, also a citizen).

A look at the “Investor Honor Roll” shows that it’s mostly the same businesses and individuals that have been running this town for decades–and it is an arm of the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company, not a spontaneous grassroots effort of an engaged and proactive citizenry.

The goals of Vermillion NOW!, as stated on the website, fall into line with some of the things I’ve talked about here in this post–reducing poverty and increasing wages, as well as encouraging entrepreneurship, broadening the tax base, and recruiting and expanding business in the city.

But I have to wonder, with many of the same old-guard investors as we’ve pretty much always had (and who haven’t been successful in alleviating these problems and growing our population/economy before “NOW!”), what new ideas are we likely to see?  And how much thoughtful and sustainable growth are we likely to experience?

And here’s how it ties in with the earlier discussion about poverty in Vermillion: part of the Vermillion NOW! initiative is to reduce poverty and raise wages, but the direction of that initiative is provided by its Advisory Governance Council, made up of “investors contributing at least $10,000 per year or $50,000 in support of the campaign.”

And direction is also being provided by Sage Fundraising Solutions out of Orlando, FL.  It’s not made clear exactly how much the Vermillion NOW! initiative is paying them–only that they’re getting a “flat monthly fee” rather than a “cut” of the amount raised.

I’m not going to question the use of an outside consulting firm to help raise money and help with economic development strategy, but I will point readers to some interesting and possibly-related posts (and some good comments) on community “branding” campaigns using outside consulting/media firms.

Whose voices are not providing guidance for the economically-developed future of our community?  Well, a look through that list of investors reveals very few progressive voices (including those running for City Council or Mayor), and I’m guessing it also doesn’t contain many (if any) names of folks who frequent the well-regarded food pantry or dine at the Welcome Table out of necessity.

So what’s keeping me from tossing a Benjamin or two in the direction of Steve Howe’s office and the Vermillion NOW! campaign and getting on that list of investors who’ll shape the future of this community?

Partly it’s that I don’t think anything short of a few Grovers, a Madison, or maybe even a Salmon P. Chase is going to get my voice heard among a group that I’m fairly certain don’t share my views about development and sustainability.  Not to mention that I don’t tend to have that kind of cash available.

Maybe that sounds like sour grapes, but a conversation I had early on in the campaign with one of the Advisory Council about the need for thoughtful development, preserving our green and agricultural spaces from sprawl, the need for local food infrastructure, and the importance of sustainability resulted in a blank look, and a question about whether Sioux Falls (which apparently we should see as some sort of model of good development?) does those things.

Should I also add that the leadership contains only two women out of fourteen members?  And that those two women are all the way at the bottom of the power structure in the “Campaign Operations Committee”?

There’s also something troubling to me about a scenario wherein, “We, the Big investors are going to bring in some of what we think are good jobs for you, the impoverished, un-, and underemployed to be trained for and work.”

I’m sure it will be positive in some degree if Vermillion NOW! is successful in this endeavor, but it doesn’t really answer to some of the other problems with poverty and employment in this town.  And it feels like an answer based on telling people what they need rather than asking them.

Too, I’d say that we have a fairly good entrepreneurial spirit in this town, it’s just that many of the entrepreneurs might not fit into the mold of what those big investors want to see–too small, too scrappy, too new or different for their tastes.

And I’ve heard plenty of stories of local entrepreneurs trying to get funding in this town and being met with the “well, that’s certainly different” attitude of rejection.  That’s happened to me, too.  I mean, what the heck IS a CSA?  If I haven’t heard of it before, I’m sure as heck not going to invest in it…

But maybe the Vermillion NOW! initiative will change that attitude and bring some positive development in how entrepreneurs with new (rather than a new version of the same old thing) visions are regarded and funded.

And while voters don’t get a say about what the big (and little) investors of the Vermillion NOW! project are doing (unless they’ve put their money in that pot), with the election only five days away, perhaps the election results will give a clearer picture of the direction residents want their city’s growth to go.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Kelsey on June 3, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    One of the problems I continue to have with the discussions happening around Clay county’s poverty problem is that there still doesn’t seem to be agreement about WHY our poverty rate is higher than that of our neighbors or other college communities in the state. If we don’t really know the who and the why, it’s going to be difficult to know what kind of solutions are really going to address the problem. Some people think it’s the university and the large number of students, but if that was the case, you’d think Brookings and Lawrence counties would have the same problem. Some people think it’s an issue of unemployment among less educated/lower skilled workers, some people think it’s an issue of under employment among educated/skilled workers (people with degrees from the U who don’t want to move, but can’t find employment in their field). Some people think it’s because we have a lot of good resources for poor people here so it’s ‘easier’ to be poor in Vermillion. I’ve even heard people suggest it’s our large Native population (classic SD excuse for unfortunate stats — “The Indians are skewing the average!”). It seems like we could end up bringing in businesses that don’t have a work force ready to work for them unless we can conclusively prove what’s behind the poverty rate here. I suspect it’s going to come down to multiple causes, but getting everyone on the same page as to some of the main issues would be a good start.

  2. Posted by Claire on June 3, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    I’ve often thought that rural areas could really benefit from micro-loan type funding for small entrepreneurs like they do in third world countries. I also don’t believe that rural areas are putting enough effort into using the internet for business. I know some folks who have great ideas, but no one to help execute the ideas. They themselves are too busy putting food on the table to just up and take off from the regular job to try a new adventure, even when the outlook for the idea is great. The result of the powers that be not supporting innovation with small loans really is stagnation. Sioux City would be a larger example of the lack of support for innovation pretty much destroying a community.

    As for the wages, I just can’t complain! I can live here just fine on $9-10 an hour. The jobs I did in California in call centers and low level office work paid in the $10-15 an hour range, and that’s often what they pay here as well. Even knocking a few dollars an hour off of that range, rent and utilities, and food costs, are dramatically lower in Vermillion than California so I don’t have to pack four roommates into a two bedroom and sneak a fifth into the garage! Frankly, if one is going to live in poverty, Vermillion is the best place to do it. It’s safe, the schools are good, there’s a food pantry and the welcome table, free pool pass, doctors who gladly take medicaid, farmer’s market that takes food stamps, Walmart’s super cheap groceries and diapers (I’m too poor to be principled, sorry 😛 ) and most of the town is in the same boat.

    Also, I think a certain segment of the population is somewhat artificially impoverished because they have enough money to make ends meet, but it isn’t considered income by the government (student loans, work study money, etc). I know most of my neighbors are living this way to get through grad school while collecting food stamps and medicaid. Personally, I think it is nice to see so many people “on the dole” who will certainly be paying it all back 20 times over in taxes that Vermillion has little to complain about in their welfare recipients.

    I also think Vermillion has a higher per capita rate of severely disabled citizens. I assume this is because we have low-income housing, good access to medical care and Sesdac available to this population. I don’t know for a fact that our rate of disabled people is higher, but just from going around town and to the Welcome Table, I believe that it is. Realistically, is job training/university/etc going to get this segment of the population out of poverty? I don’t think so. I think they are receiving the best is services and supports possible to be independent, but surely their wages or allotments will put them consistently below the poverty line.

    Another thing I think about with Vermillion poverty is that a large percentage of people living below the poverty line keeps prices low. Swimming lessons here are dirt cheap. My electric bill is through the city and is the lowest I’ve ever had anywhere. Perhaps these things are being subsidized by other sources, but it is nice to live somewhere reasonable. I’ve found South Dakotans (regardless of wage) to be incredibly frugal, and it is a huge part of what makes this state great.

    I’m not so quick to want to be rid of the poverty as long as we can maintain an acceptable standard of living as a community.

  3. Posted by Claire on June 3, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    “Some people think it’s the university and the large number of students, but if that was the case, you’d think Brookings and Lawrence counties would have the same problem”

    I would argue that many grad students in those towns are returning students who are employed while our grad school students are more numerous and less likely to be employed while attending school. I have no data to back that up, but USD is home to most of the grad programs in the state that are incompatible with concurrent employment.

  4. Posted by flyingtomato on June 3, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    GREAT discussion!

    Claire–I love your idea of micro-lending to small entrepreneurs here–just read an interview in The Sun with Woody Tasch of Slow Money, and their ideals really resonate with me.

    The living in Vermillion IS cheap–I just had a conversation the other day with a person who is planning on trying their luck in the “big city,” but knows that if she’s not able to “make it” there, she can return to Vermillion as a safe haven. I have also seen Vermillion that way–as a place of refuge, where I know the community will help me exist and maybe even get back on my feet.

    Kelsey–I agree that the “who” is hard to nail down (or is it hard–or has it simply not been investigated?). I certainly know a good-sized population of people willing to live poor in order to avoid “working for the man” and all that entails. That obviously doesn’t come close to accounting for everyone–but it would certainly be embarrassing to bring in a big employer and find that many of our un- and under-employed residents were simply unwilling to work for them.

    And I worry that we’ll get into a situation where we net a really good-sized employer–one who will seem to “save us,” and who will end up leaving us in a lurch down the line. Hmm. So much to think about.

  5. Posted by Joanie on June 3, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    I think the whole problem in all of SD is that whenever businesses are brought in, they tend to be low paying jobs, instead of paying a living wage. I used to work in a staffing service and occasionally dealt with people that had relocated to SF from the cities and even as far as Chicago, thinking the cost of living would be lower here. Their major complaint was that compared to larger cities housing was higher and wages were considerably lower. They said that housing was higher than it should be for the wages. Another complaint was the routes that the city bus service ran and the hours it was available, which didn’t allow them to take jobs that were swing shifts, graveyard shifts or weekends and holidays.

  6. (Thanks for the mention, Flying Tomato!)

    “Living wage” — we definitely need to hear more about that concept in our local and state elections!

    It’s too bad the price od admission to projects like Vermillion NOW! and the comparable Forward Madison is a big donation to the fund. I’ll bet there are plenty of people who don’t have much spare cash but would be happy to contribute other forms of capital — good ideas, volunteer work, etc. — to promote the economic development goals of the project. Recognizing that participation doesn’t have to be contingent on money alone would increase community-wide buy-in and likely make the project more successful.

  7. [price of admission… ;-P]

  8. As Director of the VCDC and primary Vermillion Now staff person I’m excited to see public discussion about this economic development initiative. There are a couple inaccuracies in the original post, but nothing to get too worked up about. (Call me Rebecca 🙂 ) Economic Development in Vermillion is my favorite topic and will share any and all details to anyone who asks. Invite me to your clubs or organizations to speak and I’ll gladly answer any question openly and honestly. There is no need to guess or assume what Vermillion Now is about when you can go directly to the source.

    Regarding the poverty rate, which is shamefully high, we understand the cause and we feel we’ve identified solutions. We lack the industry mix in the community to provide proper employment opportunities. 48% of our workforce is employed in industries that average less than $20,000 per year (service and retail) and 38% work in the government sector, mainly the University, which averages $40K per year. Only 14% of our workforce is employed in those industry sectors which pay between $20 and $40K. Vermillion Now intends to diversify the industry mix to offer more year round jobs with benefits.

    Our poverty rates have exactly zero to do with the student, Native Americans or disabled populations. It has to do with the fact that we chose the path of being a single industry community. The numbers show we either work at the U or we service the U population. Successful communities which are labeled progressive, green, artistic, or whatever adjective best describes our aspirations, have representation from multiple industry sectors. We must diversify if we want to lower the poverty rate.

    Entrepreneurship is a major component to the plan. A support system is available for those who seek to start business in areas that will lead to the diversification of our industry mix. As an example, we just applied for a grant on behalf of the Upper Missouri Valley Local Foods Project to create a storage and distribution center along with a commercial kitchen to assist local food producers get their products to market. We see this as a strength in our community and we want to make sure we help this industry sector grow. We are not nearly as different in our mindsets and desires for this community as some may think.

    Seriously, call me if you want more info about Vermillion Now. 624-5571 Again, I’ll come talk your clubs and organizations if you want. I’ll even bring a power point with cool charts and graphs. I’ll serve the coffee, help set up the chairs…really.

  9. Posted by flyingtomato on June 5, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Thanks for the great response, Steve! Your specifics on the reasons for our rate of poverty do make me feel even more strongly that a living wage initiative could be helpful–but I also agree that we need to diversify our mix of business. Your comment that we “chose the path of being a single industry community” really hits the nail on the head–and we have to choose a more diversified path if we want our future to look different than our present.

    Really glad to hear about the UMVLFP grant! And I think that you are right that our desires are perhaps not so divergent as I’ve characterized them in my post–but I also think it’s good to get that perception out there and get people talking (and I had some great conversations at this morning’s first downtown Saturday farmers market about this post).

    Not sure what my inaccuracies were, as I was going off what I read on the Vermillion NOW! website, but I’ll get in touch, so I can get it right!

    And if you’re bringing the coffee, I’m going to have to figure out an event at which we can drink it.

    Thanks for the comment!

    –Rebecca

  10. Just an FYI that we shouldn’t overlook the nonprofit sector. Since 2008, my employer has created three full-time jobs in Vermillion that are all in the desired wage range listed above. We also added two people to the town’s population, provided full-time employment to a resident and part time employment to two students. We’re also providing internship opportunities. We came because of the university and the progressive nature of the town as it’s put online by town residents. I’m glad we have formal economic development efforts in Vermillion, but that’s not what attracted us.

  11. Posted by Kelly Fuller on June 8, 2010 at 6:45 am

    Thinking more on this, I have been to one of Steve’s presentations, and I would still like to see more data. What percentage of our poor are long-term? How old are they? What percentage of them are able-bodied? What is their education level?

    Shortly after I got to Vermillion, I met with a Vermillion Now staffer. I talked about the need for green industry, not just industry. I was asked to provide information on green manufacturers. So I did research and contacted other people in my field. When I sent the information to Vermillion Now, it was never acknowledged. I wound up feeling that my time had been wasted.

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