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“Poor little Rhode Island, smallest of the 48” goes the old song, whose lyrics give away its age. The Ocean state is suffering from a 9.3 percent unemployment rate, almost as high as its 9.7 percent peak in 1982. That’s second only to Michigan and has much the same causes, according to a Washington Post article.
Manufacturing jobs have left for friendlier places and, unlike its neighbors, the state has failed to shift into more promising prospects. Decades ago, textiles decamped for the Sunbelt, the costume jewelry trade headed overseas, and the Navy sailed from Newport to Norfolk. Many residents found employment in job-rich Massachusetts but those opportunities are drying up as the nation’s economy heads south—in more ways than one. And the state has failed to develop abandoned resources—the Navy’s tremendous deep-water port facilities, for example, stand idle in Newport harbor.
Part of the problem is Rhode Island’s work force: the state ranks sixth from last in the percentage of adults with high school degrees. That shortcoming cannot be fixed overnight. Michigan, by contrast, stands 20th among the fifty states.
Job loss has led to a budget crisis—the state faces a deficit of $357 million, the country’s largest relative to spending. And two-thirds of that shortfall comes from falling tax revenues. When the jobs go, so do the taxes.
The stimulus program that the new administration is putting together may help Rhode Island. The state has the highest percentage of bridges in need of work in the nation; the stimulus plan’s infrastructure funding could address that concern while providing much needed employment. In the long run, however, Rhode Island needs to focus on developing both its workforce and its business infrastructure to attract new firms and permanent jobs.
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