This week, CNBC released its list of “Top States for Business” and once again Rhode Island ranked in the bottom five nationally, well behind our neighboring states. This matters, because in order for more Rhode Island families to join the middle class and achieve financial security and a high quality of life, we need a vibrant local economy with good paying jobs.
My grandfather Louis grew up poor, the son of Jewish immigrants from what is now the Ukraine. Grandpa Louis did not have the opportunity to go to college, but he had a way with numbers and got a job as a bookkeeper at a local company that canned tomatoes. With that job, he was able to work his way into the middle class, building the foundation for the next three generations of my family. Stories like this are still possible, but only if we have a strong economy that provides plenty of good jobs.
The pace of Rhode Island’s economic recovery from the pandemic has not been strong enough. While media rankings like the CNBC list can be flawed, the underlying data is clear. As of May, Rhode Island had 39,000 fewer jobs than the pre-pandemic level, with the slowest jobs recovery in New England.
A weak economic recovery hurts vulnerable Rhode Islanders the most. Our state continues to have the highest rate of child poverty in the region, and we are the only New England state with a rate higher than the national average.
The good news is that we still have a chance to turn Rhode Island’s economy around and provide a pathway to the middle class for thousands of Rhode Island families. But it will require forward-thinking, bold action.
The most important thing we can do to build a strong, 21st-century economy in Rhode Island is invest in our people. The best jobs go to where the talent is. This starts in our public school system, where we must expand career tech programs that will give students the skills they need to succeed in the modern economy. We must make a major investment in out-of-school learning programs to help students make up for the ground lost during the pandemic. We also should expand the RI Promise program to make it easier for adult learners to go back to school to get the training and credentials they need to advance their careers.
Rhode Island’s worst performing category in the CNBC rankings was Infrastructure. We need to transform our state’s infrastructure to meet the needs of a modern economy. In addition to fixing roads, bridges and schools, we must close the digital divide and make businesses more competitive by expanding broadband access, embrace the clean energy future by delivering on the goal of fully renewable electricity by 2030, and increase the state’s supply of affordable housing. These projects will mean thousands of up-front construction jobs and improved economic productivity over the long run.
We must also make Rhode Island an easier place to start and run a business, whether it be a main street diner or a high-tech start up. Grants and loans funded by federal stimulus will not last forever, so state government must rededicate itself to reducing red tape, providing technical assistance, promoting equity, and executing on the nuts and bolts necessary to build a friendly climate for entrepreneurship.
The formula is simple. States like Connecticut and Massachusetts have higher growth, higher wages and higher ratings on the CNBC list because their leaders have made smart investments in education, infrastructure and entrepreneurship.
Rhode Islanders deserve no less, and we have the right ingredients for success. The Ocean State is blessed with natural beauty, vibrant culture, strong anchor institutions and a heritage of innovation. We can turn Rhode Island’s economy around and provide a pathway to the middle class, just like my grandfather’s, for thousands of Rhode Island families. But we must act with urgency and purpose, and never settle for a position at the bottom of the pack.
Seth Magaziner is the general treasurer for Rhode Island.