Updated: Jul 1, 2022
By many metrics, Vermont is one of the healthiest, safest, and most equitable places one can live. The state’s average air quality index is 38.5, with its urban air quality being the 4th best in the country. Only 6.8% of Vermonters do not have health insurance and only 2.4% are unemployed. Vermont has the smallest gender wage gap in the country, strict clean drinking water standards, and the lowest pollution health risk in the country. Nevertheless, environmental justice issues oppress minorities and those living in mobile homes most.
Race will always be the best determinant for who is most affected by environmental justice issues, but annual income plays an especially large role in Vermont as well. Despite making up only 1.8% of Vermont’s population, black residents account for 33.4% of those living in poverty. Despite making up almost 90% of the state’s population, only 9.5% of them live in poverty. But, 52% of Vermont’s population qualifies as an environmental justice population, for the monetary reason that this group only makes 80% or less of the state’s annual median income. In Vermont’s mobile home population specifically, a demographic that makes up 7.2% of the state’s housing stock and is especially vulnerable to floods and hurricanes, 26.9% of the residents make only 50% of the average median income, and 14.3% make 30% of the AMI. During Hurricane Irene, 40% of the sites destroyed were mobile homes. Many of the residents in these mobile home parks do not speak English. Therefore, their financial and lingual restrictions dissuade them from reaching out for emergency aid when required, prevent them from repairing home damages, and keep them from influencing environmental policy decisions. These mobile home residents also have a harder time paying their energy bills and raising the funds for fresh food. They seem to be forgotten by those striving for a more sustainable, equitable Vermont.
While there is a significant overlap between these two demographics, minorities suffer from an equally rough set of environmental issues. Black, indigenous, and people of color are seven times more likely to have gone without heat in 2021. 76% of Vermont’s minorities live in “nature deprived” areas of the state. Minorities and those with limited English proficiency are at higher risk of exposure to heat vulnerability, air pollution, and polluting sites. Those that live below the poverty line are at a higher risk of exposure to lead in drinking water. Minorities were also more likely to report exposures to mold, lack of access to public transportation, autoimmune disorders, lyme disease, and a lack of access to primary care doctor. The list of challenges faced by minorities and the impoverished goes on in UVM Professor Bindu Panikkar’s report, “Characterizing Environmental Justice issues in Vermont,” but the point is made. Inequality rages even in the least polluted state in the country.
The solution is to get these populations’ voices heard. They simply need access to all political debates regarding environmental policy, transcribed in languages other than just English. While far from perfect, progress in the environmental justice field is being made. $370 million is being put towards housing construction, $1 million is going towards down-payment assistance for first-generation homeowners, and $4 million is provided in grants for mobile home improvements. While there is a shortage of construction workers, hundreds of millions of dollars is finally being allocated towards environmental justice issues. But, it all starts with hearing out those that are affected most and not assuming one knows the issues to be fixed without reaching out to those that experience these problems on a daily basis. As Sebbi Wu, a climate and equity advocate at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group says, the first step is providing these vulnerable communities with the chance to influence policy decisions, because “people with lived experience know what they need.”
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