For a brief time Rhode Island had three seats in Congress.
That’s one of the telling details from a characteristically easy-to-read and historically informed essay by Steve Frias in the Cranston Herald. In a nutshell, unionization and a refusal to adapt to a changing economy have been costing Rhode Island population, economic activity, and relevance for more than a half century:
Unable to remake itself following this de-industrialization, for the last half century, Rhode Island’s economic growth has lagged behind other states and its population has stagnated. From 1970 to 2020, Rhode Island’s population only grew by about 16 percent and had the eighth-lowest population growth in the nation. Meanwhile, from 1977-2020, Rhode Island had about the 11th lowest growth in real GDP in the country. In fact, Rhode Island was ranked last in population growth and in real GDP growth among the New England states during this time period.
Not only has Rhode Island’s economy and population been slow to grow, but its stagnation has caused young, educated people to leave. For example, in 1997, the Providence Journal reported that during the recession of the early 1990s, Rhode Island “experienced a greater flight of its people,” most of them of working age, “than any other state.” In 2007, Providence Journal reported how “young, college-educated” adults were leaving Rhode Island and URI economist Leonard Lardaro warned of Rhode Island’s “skill drain.” Lastly, in 2012, the U.S Census Bureau published a report showing that Rhode Island had a consistent net out-migration of its young, single, college-educated population since 1965.
Quoting from old newspapers, Frias highlights the pride various regions, including the Ocean State, used to take in their economic advancement. It’s telling about our current condition that Rhode Islanders don’t seem to mind the decline as a matter of pride or even as a matter of financial and familial investment.
That’s probably indicative of something deeper that would have to change in order to repair the damage. If that cultural lethargy could be fixed, maybe it wouldn’t matter if population didn’t grow, because we’d be doing so well in so many other ways.