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Rhode Island Ranked Last in New England for Best States

Monday, January 27, 2014


Rhode Island is last in the Northeast in a comprehensive assessment measuring states' health, wealth, and education.

Overall, New England leads the nation in the state-by-state comparison by Politico, which takes into account 14 different quality of life indicators.

But Rhode Island trails its neighbors significantly, coming in 29th on the list.

Compared to a 1931 three-part series by H. L. Mencken and Charles Angoff, titled “The Worst American State,” most states were similarly ranked by Politico. But Rhode Island came in 18 spots lower today. Why?

“I would suspect the answer lies in our under-performing economy,” said Gary Sasse, founding director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University and a GoLocal MINDSETTER.

Sasse noted the unscientific nature of the rankings, in which the outcomes are largely influenced by the criteria used, and all measures are equally weighted. “Clearly the socio-economic criteria reflects the values of wealthier and more socially conscious regions of the nation,” he said.

“What is very disturbing is Rhode Island is an outlier compared to our neighbors — ranking in the bottom half of the states.”

State-level data too coarse compared to county, census tract

Deborah Martin, associate professor and associate director of Clark University's Graduate School of Geography, said the rankings would have been more revealing had the same analysis been done on a more local level, along county or census tract lines.

“There is tremendous spatial variation within places (in this case states) as well as between places (states). Mississippi has areas of wealth/opportunity,” Martin said, going on to point out areas of considerable poverty in other states masked by overall relative wealth and educational achievement.

“Where is Mississippi's Boston? Why doesn't that exist?” With differing historical patterns of educational investment, innovation and development, “some of these issues are deeply structural,” Martin said, while others appear more quixotic. (“What if Edwin Land had lived in Biloxi?”)

Rhode Island suffers on many comparisons

Rhode Island performs comparatively well in several measures including obesity (8th lowest rate in the nation) and wealth per capita, crime, and life expectancy — the state places 13th in all three latter indexes.

But the state trails New England and the rest of the nation in critical measures like unemployment, where Rhode Island is tied with Nevada in last place.

Rates for home ownership, high school graduation, reported wellbeing, high school math and reading scores, income inequality, and percentage of residents employed in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics jobs all lump Rhode Island in the bottom third of states.

Source data for each indicator comes from the latest available information from the U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Kaiser Family Foundation, Gallup “State of the States,” and National Center for Education Statistics.

In the overall rankings, New Hampshire comes out on top, followed by Vermont in 3rd, Massachusetts in 5th, and Connecticut rounding out the top in 10th.

Maine follows at 14th.

RI position 'troubling'

“It is troubling that Rhode Island ranked 28th overall while our New England neighbors rank near the top of Politico's list,” responded Monique Chartier, a spokesperson for Rhode Island Taxpayers, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“We see that Rhode Island — no surprise — is tied for the highest unemployment rate. But interestingly and disturbingly, Rhode Island also ranks 45th for home ownership,” Chartier said. “Certainly, Rhode Island having the fourth highest property taxes in the country is one factor that discourages home ownership. And our high unemployment rate does not promote home ownership.”

Chartier said the unemployment and home ownership rates lead to the conclusion that the state hadn't been friendly to either workers or the middle class. “This is the inevitable result of a poor economy created by a correspondingly abysmal business and tax climate,” she said. “Businesses will not come to the state or thrive, nor will the employment rate rise, until our elected officials, as a matter of urgency, take the steps necessary to improve Rhode Island's business and tax climate.”

Opinions on how to improve

Scott Wolf, with Grow Smart RI, noted that indicators included in the survey on face value may or may not misrepresent states' actual situations. But Wolf said investments in infrastructure like those outlined in Gov. Lincoln Chafee's recent budget address would help the state's longterm position.

“What Rhode Island needs is to much more systematically play to our strengths, and obsess less and play less to our weaknesses.” Until recently, Wolf said, 80 percent of the state's energy was going toward “damage control.”

Positive inclusions in the latest proposed budget according to Wolf include investments in state historic tax credits, natural resources, tourism promotion, and new transportation hubs. We're “investing in our key assets.”

“It's not a panacea, but we think it's moving in the right direction.”

“The key to improving the Ocean State's relative position,” Sasse contends, “is an economic opportunity agenda focused on performances based education, parental choice and workforce development programs that link those who want jobs with those who create them.”

“Of course achieving this requires strong, visionary and effective leadership,” Sasse continued. “It will be a challenge to improve our ranking unless we address our leadership deficiency. Hopefully this will be the focus of the 2014 election.”

Lisa Blais, with the Ocean State Taxpayers Association, said living standards in the state would improve across the board when the cost of living came down, small to mid-size businesses flourish, and more have reason to open or relocate in Rhode Island.

“We have a propensity to talk about issues that are critical to our state's overall well-being as if they were new issues. The best outcome would be if we were to recognize and acknowledge that these are old issues recycled as new. There are plenty of people in RI who have been around long enough to know where the best practices lie, whether they be in education, tax policy or the regulatory environment,” Blais said.


Related Slideshow: The Best States in New England

Using 14 different state rankings, Politico Magazine recently released its list of America's Best States.  See how the New England states fared...

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Overall Rankings

6. Maine (National Rank: 41)
5. Vermont (National Rank: 32)
4. Rhode Island (National Rank: 28)
3. Connecticut (National Rank: 24)
2. Massachusetts (National Rank: 19)
1. New Hampshire (National Rank: 1)
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Wealthiest Per Capita

6. Maine: $26,464 (National Rank: 28)
5. Vermont: $28,846 (National Rank: 19)
4. Rhode Island: $30,005 (National Rank: 13)
3. New Hampshire: $32,758 (National Rank: 7)
2. Massachusetts: $35,485 (National Rank: 5)
1. Connecticut: $37,807 (National Rank: 2)

Source: U.S. Census

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Lowest Unemployment Rate

6. Rhode Island: 9.0 (National Rank: 50)
5. Connecticut: 7.6 (National Rank: 39)
4. Massachusetts: 7.1 (National Rank: 30)
3. Maine: 6.4 (National Rank: 22)
2. New Hampshire: 5.1 (National Rank: 10)
1. Vermont: 4.4 (National Rank: 5)

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Lowest Poverty Rate

6. Maine: 13.3 (National Rank: 23)
5. Rhode Island: 13.2 (National Rank: 21)
4. Vermont: 11.6 (National Rank: 12)
3. Massachusetts: 11 (National Rank: 7)
2. Connecticut: 10 (National Rank: 5)
1. New Hampshire: 8.4 (National Rank: 1)

Source: U.S. Census

Note: Based on percent of population below poverty level

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Highest Home Ownership Rate

6. Massachusetts: 41.6 (National Rank: 51)
5. Rhode Island: 61.2 (National Rank: 45)
4. Connecticut: 68.3 (National Rank: 24)
3. Vermont: 71.2 (National Rank: 8)
2. New Hampshire 72.0 (National Rank: 7)
1. Maine: 72.1 (National Rank: 6)

Source: U.S. Census

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Highest Percentage of High School Graduates

6. Rhode Island: 84.8 (National Rank: 37)
5. Connecticut: 89 (National Rank: 20)
4. Massachusetts: 89.1 (National Rank: 19)
3. Maine: 90.6 (National Rank: 8)
2. Vermont: 91.3 (National Rank: 6)
1. New Hampshire: 91.4 (National Rank: 5)

Source: U.S. Census

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Longest Life Expectancy

6. Maine: 79.2 (National Rank: 23)
5. Rhode Island: 79.9 (National Rank: 13)
4. New Hampshire: 80.3 (National Rank: 8)
2. Vermont: 80.5 Year (National Rank: 5)
2. Massachusetts: 80.5 years (National Rank: 5)
1. Connecticut: 80.8 years (National Rank: 3)

Source: Kaiser Family Foundation

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Lowest Infant Mortality Rate

6. Rhode Island: 6.5 (National Rank: 21)
5. Connecticut: 6.3 (National Rank: 19)
4. Maine 6.0 (National Rank: 14)
2. New Hampshire: 5.1 (National Rank: 4)
2. Vermont: 5.1 (National Rank: 4)
1. Massachusetts: 4.9 (National Rank: 1)

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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Lowest Obesity Rate

6. Maine: 27.5 (National Rank: 31)
5. Vermont: 25.7 (National Rank: 20)
4. New Hampshire: 25.1 (National Rank: 17)
3. Rhode Island: 24.3 (National Rank: 8)
2. Connecticut: 22.7 (National Rank: 4)
1. Massachusetts: 21.5 (National Rank: 2)

Source: Gallup “State of the States”

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Highest Reported Wellbeing

6. Rhode Island: 65.5 (National Rank: 37)
5. Maine: 67.3 (National Rank: 20)
4. Connecticut: 67.6 (National Rank: 16)
3. Massachusetts: 68.1 (National Rank: 9)
2. New Hampshire: 68.4 (National Rank: 8)
1. Vermont: 68.8 (National Rank: 5)

Source: Gallup “State of the States”

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Highest Math Scores

6. Rhode Island: 278 (National Rank: 36)
5. Maine: 286 (National Rank: 19)
4. Connecticut: 289 (National Rank: 10)
3. New Hampshire: 292 (National Rank: 7)
2. Vermont: 293 (National Rank: 4)
1. Massachusetts: 200 (National Rank: 1)

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Note: Based on 8th grade math scores

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Highest Reading Scores

6. Rhode Island: 258 (National Rank: 39)
5. Connecticut: 267 (National Rank: 12)
4. New Hampshire: 270 (National Rank: 4)
4. Maine: 270 (National Rank: 4)
1. Vermont: 273 (National Rank: 1)
1. Massachusetts: 273 (National Rank: 1)

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Note: Based on 8th grade math scores

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Least Income Inequality

6. Connecticut: 0.4915 (National Rank: 49)
5. Massachusetts: 0.4813 (National Rank: 44)
4. Rhode Island: 0.4647 (National Rank: 32)
3. Maine: 0.445 (National Rank: 15)
2. Vermont: 0.4392 (National Rank: 11)
1. New Hampshire: 0.4298 (National Rank: 5)

Source: U.S. Census

Note: Data is based on GINI coefficient

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Lowest Crime Rate

6. Massachusetts: 405.5 (National Rank: 31)
5. Connecticut: 283 (National Rank: 19)
4. Rhode Island: 252.4 (National Rank: 13)
3. New Hampshire: 187.9 (National Rank: 3)
2. Vermont 142.6 (National Rank: 2)
1. Maine 122.7 (National Rank: 1)

Source: FBI

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Highest Percentage Employed in STEM Jobs

6. Maine: 4.1 (National Rank: 37)
5. Rhode Island: 4.4 (National Rank: 32)
4. Vermont: 5.7 (National Rank: 15)
3. Connecticut: 6 (National Rank: 11)
2. New Hampshire: 6.9 (National Rank: 7)
1. Massachusetts: 7.4 (National Rank: 5)

Source: U.S. Census

Note: STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)

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H.L. Mencken and Charles Angoff’s 1931 rankings

6. Vermont
5. New Hampshire
4. Maine
3. Rhode Island
2. Connecticut
1. Massachusetts


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