On Friday, the Brookings Metropolitan program released a report, City and metropolitan inequality on the rise, driven by declining incomes in which Rhode Island’s largest and capital city, Providence, emerges as the city with the 5th highest level of income inequality in the nation. A principal cause of this high rating is the erosion of wages (and hence income) for low income workers in Rhode Island, a situation likely exacerbated in Providence. Too many Rhode Island workers continue to feel the ongoing pain of the Great Recession that began more than eight years ago, and (at least officially) ended more than six years ago, experiencing levels of long-term unemployment, and underemployment that erode their financial well-being. The Rhode Island economy isn’t working for these people. Among those currently in the slow lane on the “Rhode to Prosperity” workers of color comprise a disproportionate share, as recently documented in The State of Working Rhode Island: Workers of Color.
On Tuesday, the Brookings Metropolitan program released a report, Rhode Island Innovates: A Competitive Strategy for the Ocean State¸ a report that expertly assesses the Rhode Island economy, using complex sector-based analyses to identify its comparative areas of strength, and some of the challenges that may prevent businesses from choosing the Ocean State as their home. The Brookings study presents several strategies to improve the business climate, noting that “Rhode Island is poised to emerge as a leader on business environment re-engineering.”
To Brookings’ credit, they point in Rhode Island Innovates to the importance of sustaining “good jobs” (which they define as those that “offer livable wages with benefits for full-time workers who have less than a four-year degree”), and they correctly note that the old mantra of “jobs, jobs, jobs” is no longer adequate or appropriate to today’s economic realities. Yet it feels very much like the two Brookings reports each exist in their own spheres. What Rhode Island (and arguably every other state in the nation) needs is an approach to the economy that integrates the needs of its workforce with the needs of the business community. Innovation and growth are important, but unless such growth advances the well-being of Rhode Islanders regardless of age, race and ethnicity, we will remain diminished as a state.