This week, CNBC released its list of “Top States for Business” and Rhode Island is again in the top five nationwide, well behind our neighbors. This is important because in order for more families in Rhode Island to join the middle class and achieve financial security and a high quality of life, we need a vibrant local economy with well-paying jobs.
My grandfather Louis grew up poor, the son of Jewish immigrants from what is now Ukraine. Grandpa Louis didn’t get a chance to go to college, but he knew numbers and got a job as an accountant at a local tomato canning company. With this job he was able to work his way up to the middle class and lay the foundation for the next three generations of my family. Such stories are still possible, but only if we have a strong economy that offers a lot of good jobs.
The pace of Rhode Island’s economic recovery from the pandemic was not strong enough. While media rankings like the CNBC list can be in error, the underlying data is clear. In May, Rhode Island had 39,000 fewer jobs than before the pandemic, with New England job recovery being the slowest.
A weak economic recovery hurts the vulnerable Rhode Islanders most. Our state continues to have the highest child poverty rate in the region, and we are the only state in New England with a rate above the national average.
The good news is that we still have a chance to turn the Rhode Island economy inside out and make the middle class for thousands of Rhode Island families. But it requires forward-looking, courageous action.
The most important thing we can do to build a strong 21st century economy in Rhode Island is to invest in our people. The best jobs go where the talent is. This starts in our public school system where we need to expand career tech programs that provide students with the skills they need to succeed in the modern economy. We need to invest heavily in after-school learning programs to help students make up for the ground lost during the pandemic. We should also expand the RI Promise program to make it easier for adult learners to return to school to get the education and credentials they need for their careers.
Rhode Island’s worst performing category on the CNBC rankings was infrastructure. We need to redesign the infrastructure of our state to meet the demands of a modern economy. In addition to repairing roads, bridges and schools, we need to close the digital divide and make businesses more competitive by expanding broadband access, tackling the future of clean energy by achieving the goal of fully renewable electricity by 2030, and providing affordable public services raise housing. These projects will mean thousands of construction contracts up front and will improve economic productivity in the long run.
We also need to make Rhode Island an easier place to start and run a business, be it a main restaurant or a high-tech startup. Grants and loans funded through government incentives will not last forever, so the state government must re-focus on cutting red tape, providing technical assistance, raising equity and implementing the necessary measures to create a friendly climate for entrepreneurship focus.
The formula is simple. States like Connecticut and Massachusetts have higher growth, higher wages, and higher valuations on the CNBC list because their leaders have made smart investments in education, infrastructure, and entrepreneurship.
Rhode Islanders don’t make less, and we have the right ingredients for success. The Ocean State is blessed with natural beauty, vibrant culture, strong anchor institutions, and a legacy of innovation. We can reverse the Rhode Island economy and pave the way for thousands of Rhode Island families into the middle class, just like my grandfather’s. But we must act with urgency and determination and never settle for a position at the bottom.
Seth Magaziner is the general treasurer of Rhode Island.