Prices are rising faster than wages, putting pressure on thousands of Rhode Islanders as we head into the holiday season. As housing, food, and gas costs rise quickly, even Rhode Islanders with good paying jobs are getting squeezed. Over the past year through Oct. 31, the Consumer Price Index has risen 6.2 percent, the highest rate in three decades, and significantly higher than the increase in average hourly earnings for workers over the same period. Given this broad price inflation, it’s no surprise the number of people using a food pantry increased in September and October and more people are facing food insecurity than before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Taming inflation may be a national issue that requires a federal response to solve, but there are actions we can take at the state level in the meantime to help relieve the financial pressure Rhode Island families are feeling as we head into the holiday season.
Our state government projects a huge surplus for this fiscal year — more than $600 million. This surplus does not even include the billions of dollars Rhode Island has received from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan Act or the historic infrastructure bill that just passed Congress.
Rhode Island should move quickly to use at least $250 million of the state’s surplus to help Rhode Islanders keep up with the rising cost of living.
We should distribute grocery gift cards to all households making less than $125,000 per year. The price of groceries has risen at a level not seen in over 30 years. The cost of a dozen eggs has gone up 29 percent in just a year and the Thanksgiving dinner many of us just enjoyed cost an average of about 14 percent more this year than last. This is not sustainable, and Rhode Island families need support until grocery prices normalize.
Second, we should suspend the sales tax on all toys for the month of December. This would put money directly into the pockets of Rhode Islanders as they shop for their children and young family members. Suspending sales tax on toys would have the added benefit of encouraging out-of-staters to do their holiday shopping right here in Rhode Island.
Let’s also take immediate action to reduce the price of prescription drugs, a particular strain for senior citizens. Governor Baker of Massachusetts and Governor Lamont of Connecticut recently proposed legislation in their states that would impose fines on drug manufacturers whose prices increase by more than 2 percent in excess of the Consumer Price Index, and Rhode Island should join our neighbors in taking the same action to protect our citizens from escalating prescription drug costs.
Rhode Island can do those three things quickly to help families keep up with rising costs in the short term.
Looking ahead, there are many more things we can do to make Rhode Island a more affordable place to live. Since launching my campaign for governor, I’ve released plans to improve education and workforce training, invest in clean energy infrastructure and solve our housing crisis — each including measures that will address the rise in cost of living.
Our campaign’s plan for Rhode Island will help people save money by reducing utility costs, expanding down payment assistance for first-time homebuyers, building more affordable housing, and making child care and higher education more affordable. Our childcare plan will be particularly impactful, as parents spend an average of 10 percent of household income for a married couple and 34 percent of household income for a single parent. Guaranteeing universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds and increasing the number of childcare providers will alleviate that strain and allow more parents, many women, to rejoin the workforce.
I am running for governor to build a strong economy where every Rhode Islander regardless of background can get a good job and send their children to a great public school right here in our state. While we work together to build the foundation for Rhode Island’s future, we must also meet the urgent needs of today.
With swift, targeted action we can help Rhode Islanders stay ahead of the rising cost of living.
Seth Magaziner is Rhode Island’s state treasurer. He is a candidate for governor.