The Line of Success, in Rhode Island
This series began with a look at the present condition of Rhode Island’s cities and towns in terms of income, employment, and population. Not surprisingly, the Providence urban ring is poorer, with less employment and more population. Additionally, smaller percentages of the population are even looking for work.
The story became more interesting when The Current turned its eye toward trends from one year of the U.S. Census (2000) to the next (2010). In significant locations in the urban ring, population is up, the number of employed residents is down, yet median household income has increased more rapidly than inflation. Those who are working, therefore, are doing much better than they were.
Around Narragansett Bay, even more interesting distinctions exist. Most of RI’s top 10 cities and towns, when it comes to losing population and employment, bordered the bay. Yet, shifts in median income point to some interesting distinctions.
What began to emerge was a story of two regions — the urban ring and the bay — that appear to be undergoing very different processes of development. Understanding the local intricacies would be a longer-term project than is practical, at this time, but for some initial detail, The Current sorted the cities and towns by change in population over the decade on the horizontal axis of the following graph and by median household income along the vertical axis.
Municipalities to the lower left lost population and are relatively poor; those to the upper right gained population and are relatively wealthy. The green-shaded area is the range of towns with median incomes 20% to 40% higher than the state median in 2010, with the middle point being $71,371. The red-shaded area is the range of towns within 10% of the state median of $54,902.
Scatter plots like the above are typically used to illustrate trends, and it would be accurate to say that the median household income correlates somewhat with gain and loss of population over the last decade. More instructive, though, are the clusters of income ranges.
Communities that ended the decade near the state median, which barely exceeded inflation, tended to lose population. Median income thirty percent greater than the state overall appears to be the magic number for gaining population. (Switching from population to employment changes little beyond moving the vertical zero line to the right of Tiverton.)
Among the four poorest communities, Woonsocket and Pawtucket slipped from 2000 to 2010, while Providence and Central Falls closed the gap.
The red band contains mainly urban ring and bay communities, with the exceptions being West Warwick below both zero lines and Westerly to the upper left of the intersection). All in all, the urban ring outperformed the bay, in this band, with Cranston and Johnston gaining population and North Providence not losing much. The green band, meanwhile, contains an assortment of suburban and rural towns from across the state.
If the story of the urban ring is embodied in Providence and Central Falls, the intriguing change in the bay came with Narragansett, Tiverton, and Bristol. Comparing the above chart with what it would have been using income data from 2000 shows Narragansett and Tiverton falling from the upper band to the lower, while Bristol made it halfway in the other direction. (Newport, by the way, advanced about as much as Bristol, but only crossed the state’s median line.)
The Challenge for Policy
The question for policymakers is whether any of these trends point the way toward a better economic future. The answer will have to come from individuals familiar with their own communities, but there appear to be two general approaches to the statewide economy:
- Involve government heavily in drawing in large companies and entrepreneurs with big, cutting-edge ideas. Leverage government resources to change the nature of Rhode Island’s labor force for “high paying jobs” in the “knowledge economy.” And expand government programs to help those who aren’t able to make the leap.
- Pull government back — in terms of regulations and taxes — so that it is easier for individuals to pursue their own economic interests. Stop using government to make guesses (educated and otherwise) about the “jobs of the future” and allow an even playing field. And extend the principle of individuals’ making their own decisions about their lives to the state’s safety net as far as is humane and practical.
In a general way, the trends of the last decade give some context for the decision of direction. In the urban ring, for example, the population, employment, and income trends suggest a growing disparity between those who are working and those who are not. The first model, after all, relies on wealthy people with substantial resources and capacity for risk to leverage government intervention and employ workers with higher pay in technical fields. Some residents simply won’t have the ability or interest to reorder their lives in order to fulfill the employer’s needs, leaving them the choice of offering other services (such as cleaning, serving at restaurants, and working in retail) or availing themselves of government programs.
The second model, by contrast, is geared toward individuals who might be more comfortable with the term “small business owner” than “entrepreneur.” The most notable relationship of this group to trends in the bay-front region is that location is among the choices that people want to be able to make. Those priced off Aquidneck Island during a housing boom and employment bust might move to Tiverton or Bristol but have no interest in Pawtucket. Given its location, Warwick’s decline may be a function of being caught in the middle.
These are the professionals in any field who see an opportunity to improve their own situations and perhaps employ a few people along the way, whether that means striking out on their own in construction trades or operating niche businesses designing high-tech surfboards. The unfortunate news for them is that Rhode Island’s leaders lean much more heavily in the direction that consolidates control and, it appears, locks the economy in a downward-drifting status quo.
City and Town Employment Trends
Providence County: Burrillville, Central Falls, Cranston, Cumberland, East Providence, Foster, Glocester, Johnston, Lincoln, North Providence, North Smithfield, Pawtucket, Providence, Scituate, Smithfield, Woonsocket