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Gary Sasse: Rekindling the American Dream in Rhode Island

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Rhode Island's next governor must outline a strategy for rekindling the American Dream by ensuring everybody is given the opportunity to participate, believes Gary Sasse.

The long- held belief that those who play by the rules and go to work every day will provide a better future for their children is fading. The American Dream of a “better, richer and happier life” that historian James Truslow Adams wrote about in 1931 may no longer be a reality for many hard working Rhode Islanders.

In a 2012 essay in Time Magazine the Pulitzer Prize writer Jon Meacham suggested that the American Dream had seen better days. He said, “The great enemy of democratic capitalism, economic inequality is real and growing.” This pretty much describes what may be happening here in Rhode Island. The question that we have to address is what can be done to rekindle the American Dream for working families and the middle class? The middle class is not defined solely by income, but rather by the aspiration to own a home, provide a college education for their children and achieve retirement security.

An Equity Profile of Rhode Island

An Equity Profile of Rhode Island prepared for Rhode Map RI is one of the most informative reports about the social and economic fabric of Rhode Island that has been released in recent memory. The mission of Rhode Map RI, which is being lead by the Rhode Island Division of Planning, is to develop a plan to build stronger, resilient communities with good jobs for our citizens. The authors of this report are Policy Link and the University of Southern California Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE).

The principle finding in An Equity Profile of Rhode Island is “While the state demonstrates much economic strength, wide racial gaps in income, health and opportunity –coupled with a shrinking middle class –places its economic future at risk.” The 103- page report provides ample data to document its findings.

According to the Brooking Institution as of March 2013 Rhode Island ranked 92nd among the 100 largest metropolitan regions of the United States in economic recovery.

Growing Income Inequality

Income inequality has been increasing in Rhode Island. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Progress Institute characterized income trends in the Ocean State as “A lost decade for Rhode Island‘s low-and middle- income households.”

Since 1979 PERE reports that the share of Rhode Island households with middle-class incomes decreased from 40 to 37 percent. Conversely, the portion of low-income households grew from 30 to 36 percent.

Since the economic recovery began the New England Economic Partnership reported that Rhode Island was the only state in the nation that actually lost middle- class jobs. These are jobs that generally require less than a bachelor’s degree but more than a high school diploma.

Minorities represent the fastest growing population groups in Rhode Island. Unfortunately, due to a lack of educational achievement they are being hit particularly hard by Rhode Island’s uneven economic recovery. By 2040 four out of ten Rhode Islanders will be people of color. Unless this education-skills gap is closed Rhode Island’s economy will not realize its full potential. The Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University reported that “the Latino –White achievement gaps in Rhode Island are among the worst in the country.” The PERE report found that by 2018 42% of jobs will require at least an associate’s degree. However, only 21% of U.S. - borne Latinos and 30% of African Americans had that level of education in 2010.

Early Literacy: A Key to the Future Success of Rhode Island

A leading authority on competitiveness strategy Harvard Professor Michael Porter believes that a state’s economic competitiveness is determined by the productivity with which it utilizes its human, capital and natural resources. To create a productive environment for business to grow and prosper in Rhode Island job one is to cultivate a future workforce that is highly literate, knowledgeable and skilled.

A critical yardstick for success in closing the achievement-skills deficit is to make sure that students are proficient readers by the time they are in the fourth grade. Research shows that students who are not reading at grade level in the fourth grade generally fall behind their peers and run a much higher risk of not becoming economically self-sufficient citizens.

While there has been progress, only 38% of Rhode Island’s fourth graders are reading proficiently. RI-CAN noted that less than 20% of Black and Latino fourth graders scored proficient in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress--the nation’s report card.

The National Governors Association has proposed a plan of action for governors to use for youth in promoting reading proficiency by the fourth grade. Implementation of this plan may well require increased state spending. It calls for expanded access to quality child-care, pre -kindergarten, full-day kindergarten and proactively engaging parents as partners in language and literacy development. Gubernatorial candidates should become familiar with the Governor’s Guide to Early Literacy: Getting All Students Reading By Third Grade.

Getting all students reading at grade level also requires fundamental reform in school organization and accountability. Quality educational opportunities must be made available to all families. This will require breaking down barriers to access top performing public schools. As former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “Parental choice is the civil rights issue of our day.” It will also necessitate increased focus on school assessment and accountability. For example, teacher tenure practices should be reviewed to insure that tenure is earned on a record of solid performance and effectiveness.

When coupled with reforms, additional tax dollars may be required to provide start-up costs for school districts to provide full-day kindergartens, expansion of State pre-kindergarten programs and enhancing parental outreach and professional development programs.

The person delivering the gubernatorial inaugural address of 2015 will speak to a state that not only faces difficult economic challenges but is also experiencing a rapid demographic transformation. The inaugural message must outline a strategy for rekindling the American Dream by ensuring everybody is given the opportunity to participate. This starts with maintaining high expectations for closing the achievement gap confronting Rhode Island’s fastest growing groups, increasing educational choices for all families and holding schools accountable for results.

Gary Sasse is Founding Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University. He is the former Executive Director Rhode Island Public Expenditure and Director of the Departments of Administration and Revenue.


Related Slideshow: Best and Worst Run States in New England

How well do the New England states stack up against each other in terms of how they're currently run?

According to Wall Street 24/7, looking at a state's debt per capita, budget deficit, unemployment, median household income, and percentage below the poverty line are all indicators of a state's level operational success - or lack thereof.  

Below are how the New England states were ranked compared to each other, based on data from 2012 -- as well as the "best run" and "worst run" states in the country. 

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Rhode Island

National Rank, #47

> Debt per capita: $8,721 (3rd highest)
> Budget deficit: 6.9% (35th largest)
> Unemployment: 10.4% (3rd highest)
> Median household income: $54,554 (18th highest)
> Percent below poverty line: 13.7% (tied-20th lowest)


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National Rank, #41

> Debt per capita: $8,531 (4th highest)
> Budget deficit: 17.1% (12th largest)
> Unemployment: 8.4% (tied-14th highest)
> Median household income: $67,276 (4th highest)
> Percent below poverty line: 10.7% (4th lowest)


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National Rank, #30

> Debt per capita: $4,447 (12th highest)
> Budget deficit: 16.6% (14th largest)
> Unemployment: 7.3% (tied-22nd highest)
> Median household income: $46,709 (16th lowest)
> Percent below poverty line: 14.7% (tied-24th lowest)


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New Hampshire

National Rank, #25

> Debt per capita: $6,414 (8th highest)
> Budget deficit: 20.0% (8th largest)
> Unemployment: 5.5% (8th lowest)
> Median household income: $63,280 (7th highest)
> Percent below poverty line: 10.0% (the lowest)


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National Rank, #18

> Debt per capita: $6,414 (8th highest)
> Budget deficit: 20.0% (8th largest)
> Unemployment: 5.5% (8th lowest)
> Median household income: $63,280 (7th highest)
> Percent below poverty line: 10.0% (the lowest)


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National Rank, #6

> Debt per capita: $6,414 (8th highest)
> Budget deficit: 20.0% (8th largest)
> Unemployment: 5.5% (8th lowest)
> Median household income: $63,280 (7th highest)
> Percent below poverty line: 10.0% (the lowest)


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Worst Run State in US

50. California

> Debt per capita: $3,990 (20th highest)
> Budget deficit: 27.8% (3rd largest)
> Unemployment: 10.5% (2nd highest)
> Median household income: $58,328 (11th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 17.0% (18th highest)


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Best Run State in US

1. North Dakota

> Debt per capita: $3,033 (20th lowest)
> Budget deficit: None
> Unemployment: 3.1% (the lowest)
> Median household income: $53,585 (19th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 11.2% (6th lowest)



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Mr. Sasse, while well intentioned, is unable to see the forest for the trees, as is the case for most political pundits nowadays. He fails to see how local economics is now determined by national economics and international economics. Basically, a set a rules have been bought via campaign contributions to rig the system in favor of the privileged few creating an outrageous gap between the haves and the have nots. The middle class has been beaten to a pulp by being conned into believing trickle down economics. Wall Street crashes the economy and fed money to the states drys up. It is not by coincidence that all these pension issues and potential bankruptcies suddenly were brought to the foreground since George W Bush brought us to the brink of this country's second major depression. The rules have to be changed at the top or states will continue to struggle until Wall Street with its too big to fail banks now 38% bigger collapse the economy once again. Mr. Sasse is basically lecturing to children about the dangers of playing with matches while a deranged arsonist, in this case Wall Street, is pouring gasoline all around him with a lit cigarette in its mouth.

Comment #1 by Jonathan Bainsworth on 2013 12 18

Dont forget you have people like Taveras raising property and car taxes and then giving all his friends pay raises!

Comment #2 by anthony sionni on 2013 12 18

Mr Sasse straddles the fence of endorsing policy emphasizing reports and planning from the elites.He seeks to solve education issues using the same bureaucratic ,failed structure that is public education. All that is necessary to vastly improve education in this state ,is competition. The end of the article above focuses on a very important idea. Most people,especially the disadvantaged families desire some control over their destiny. Condoleezza Rice said “Parental choice is the civil rights issue of our day.” She is right and Mr Sasse is right to echo that sentiment.Parents know whats best for their children and they should be able to choose schools that are not failing or have had very poor results. Parents want the best for their kids and Rhode Island wants educational results that strengthen our workforce and that we can be proud of. School choice is the answer.

Comment #3 by michael riley on 2013 12 18

There has always been income inequality and there always will be. It is worse in the US than it has been in recent history due to global competition. Many formerly dormant countries like China, India and other undeveloped countries now compete with us on a world stage. At the same time we have new technologies that make production more efficient. Less people produce more product.

A man with a strong back and a willingness to work used to be able to make a living. That has changed. The fact is we need very few unskilled workers. Income inequality has nothing to do with race or discrimination. It has to do with supply and demand. There is a glut of unskilled workers.

And yes everyone should be able to read but even if we dramatically add to the number of literate people that isn’t going to mean there are jobs for these folks. They have to go a whole lot further. We need engineers, inventors, highly skilled leaders, and entrepreneurs. And they need to be motivated to work very hard and to compete globally to build a better future. Government can’t make this happen by micro management. China is learning this. The best policy of the government will be to get out of the way.

A big bloated government makes us all poorer and less free.

Comment #4 by James Berling on 2013 12 18

Just who funds the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University?

Who funds Rhode Map RI?

Bloodsuckers living off taxpayers.

Comment #5 by Jim D on 2013 12 19

I applaud your conclusions and recommendations but I am not sure that relying on the work of the Equity Profile of Rhode Island prepared for Rhode Map RI provides a practical path forward to raise the fortunes of the poor in our state. The Equity Profile points out a number of conditions and problems that may be real problems, but all couched abstract and in politically correct terms that have little relationship to improving education levels and employment prospects of Rhode Islanders. The plethora of charts and statistical table is an attempt to cloak this study with a level of scientific precision that is not warranted. Social science is in this case a contradiction in terms. There is a certain academic and social science coloring to the Equity Profile and a real lack of understanding of the real world. I am not sure what “communities of color” really means. Does it include our swarthy recent arrivals from the Azores? Our distant Sicilian arrivals? Our Chinese, Korean and Japanese residents? While “communities of color” maybe “essential to the region’s economic success now and in the future.” It is never explained how this is the case or why this is so. Building an “equitable and sustainable economy” sounds so good but what does it mean and more importantly how does it get done. The definition of “equity” as the “ensuring full inclusion of the entire region’s residents in the economic, social, and political life of the region……”, begs the question of who “ensures”? What if the target population has no desire to be full included in the aspects noted? There is talk about “growing good jobs” with absolutely no discussion of the capital, technology, entrepreneurial drive and governmental policy needed to create “good jobs”. It is as if good jobs grow on trees or can be produced on demand. As you point out one needs high quality education to be able to secure high quality jobs. However the Equity Profile seems to imply that communities of color should have high quality job because they are communities of color. This seems neither equitable, nor fail nor sustainable. A good example of the selective coloring of this report is the statement that “Research shows that equity and diversity are win-win propositions for nations, regions, communities, and firms.” There is a lot of research showing that how equity is achieved or how diversity is defined has a big impact on whether it is a win-win or not. Diversity can be counterproductive in situations lacking a common cultural view. (See Robert D. Putnam, Better Together: Restoring the American Community). Making diversity an unassailable foundation for economic success is not logical. How would one account for the success of the Asian Tigers and the complete absence of diversity? An Equity Profile that makes no mention of the critical importance of family structure to poverty and economic achievement is far from objective and complete. I could go on.

Comment #6 by Michael Byrnes on 2013 12 21

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