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Scott Wolf ProJo OpEd: Myth of a bloated R.I.

As part of Grow Smart RI’s ongoing effort to enhance the dialogue and decisions about Rhode Island’s future, Scott Wolf recently had the following op-ed published in the Providence Journal. Scott’s piece rebuts some unrealistically negative assertions about Rhode Island contained in an Ed Achorn February 9, 2010 column. Scott concludes that “To deal with the challenges facing us, we will be best served by a hard nosed look at the facts about our strengths and weaknesses rather than by a twisting and flouting of the facts that creates a false sense of hopelessness and desperation.”

The Providence Journal

Scott Wolf: Myth of a bloated R.I.
February 15, 2010

Rhode Island has many serious social and economic problems, but one of its biggest problems is psychological — a tendency by many of our residents to always believe the worst about our state, even if the facts don’t warrant such a pessimistic conclusion. That self-flagellating and self-defeating tendency was pervasive in Edward Achorn’s Feb. 9 column, “Rhode Island is out of whack with the rest of America.”

To defend his premise, Achorn cites a number of research findings by Capers Jones, a member of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, several of which are either patently false or very misleading. Highlighting the false category is the assertion that Rhode Island has the largest number of school districts per capita in America. While this assertion feeds nicely into the oft repeated mantra that Rhode Island is uniquely and hopelessly inefficient, the facts tell a much different story. Extrapolating from state charts detailing each state’s population (Source: U.S. Census) and total number of school districts (Source: U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics), Rhode Island is not even close to having the largest number of school districts per capita in America. In fact, it has fewer school districts per capita than the national average!

You only have to look across the border to Massachusetts to find a state with more school districts per capita than Rhode Island — one for every 17,100 people vs. the Ocean State’s ratio of one school district for every 22, 357 people. Even the hallowed “Live Free or Die” state of New Hampshire has many more school districts per capita than the Ocean State — one school district for every 8,023 people.

Ironically, despite the conventional wisdom that Rhode Island is an outlier even within its own peer group of highly decentralized Northeastern states, we rank as one of the least balkanized of these states, with all the New England states plus New Jersey and Pennsylvania having worse ratios than us.

When you compare us to states in other regions, we are surprisingly mainstream. Kansas, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington all have more school districts per capita than does Rhode Island.

None of this suggests that we can’t and shouldn’t be more efficient given our small size and high population density, but it does suggest that we can shed some of our pronounced inferiority complex around the issue of governmental decentralization and bloatedness.

Nevertheless, you might find it difficult to feel anything but inferior if you took another of Capers Jones’s assertions at face value, namely that “Between 2000 and 2008, government employment in the state grew dramatically faster than the population did.” Since our state population was stagnant in this period, government employment didn’t have to grow much to “grow dramatically faster than the population.” Furthermore, according to 2008 U.S. Census data, the most recent available, Rhode Island has fewer state and local government workers per capita than the majority of the 15 small states with populations under 2 million. Couple this with the recent finding by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, in Albany, N.Y., that state and local government shrank more in Rhode Island during the last year (between June 2008 and June 2009) than in any other state, and it is hard to conclude fairly that Rhode Island government is a runaway train ready to suffocate the private sector.

To deal with the challenges facing us, we will be best served by a hard-nosed look at the facts about our strengths and weaknesses rather than by a twisting and flouting of the facts that creates a false sense of hopelessness and desperation.

Scott Wolf is executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island.

In response to Edward Achorn: Rhode Island is out of whack with the rest of America [The Providence Journal]

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12 Responses to Scott Wolf ProJo OpEd: Myth of a bloated R.I.

  1. Peter Simon February 18, 2010 at 3:29 pm #

    Thank you , Scott, for a good piece of policy analysis. Between your work and that of Tom Sgouros, I am optimistic that we have some leadership with the skills and equanimity to deal with the massive resistance to rational approaches to policy development here in little Rhody.

    I think of “What’s Wrong with Kansas” all the time when I hear my friends ranting about the bloated government at the state and local levels. Admittedly, regionalization is a direction worthy of consideration.

  2. Lee R. Whitaker February 18, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    Scott,I’ve grown exceedingly weary of constant drum beat of negativity coming from the ProJo editorial page and what seeps into its reporting on some of these key issues, as well as what we see and hear from our local television broadcasters. Shrill and snide voices, often uninformed and highly biased, dominate, suggesting that all the world’s woes result from what is perceived as too much local government, too many regulations, too many school districts, etc., etc. If you are reading this from afar, you would believe that Rhode Island is a terrible place. So from a business development perspective, the people beating the drums of negativity greatly hurt their fellow Rhode Islanders.

  3. Jeff Broadhead February 18, 2010 at 4:25 pm #

    Right On, Scott!! It is so easy to hear (or read) a “fact” and think it true–and those false truths have profound impacts on our thinking, whether or not we realize it.

    RI is a great state. I was born and raised here, then lived around the country for 20 years, and have now been back for more than 10 years. Many of the “problems” that Rhode Islanders bemoan are, in fact, the same issues I’ve hear in Seattle, Washington DC, Maine, and Connecticut. We are not unique in our complaints, but we seem to be in how much we believe that is is “only us!”

    I love living and working here. In my work I interact with private sector folks, nonprofits, and local and State government employees. I have found them all to be hard-working, common sense people. Some are entrepreneurial, others more cautious, but all intend good and believe they are the ones doing good work.

    Scott, your claims seem to fit well with my belief–if we can only realize that RI is “we” and “us,” and not “them,” then we might just find that we do live in the best state in the union to live and work.

  4. Samantha MacBride February 18, 2010 at 8:52 pm #

    This is a top-notch, reasoned and informed rebuttal that should serve as a model for useful thinking about Rhode Island’s present and future. As an educated professional not (yet) residing full time in the Ocean State, who hopes to some day, let me commend you on the clarity and constructiveness of your retort.

  5. dick anthony February 19, 2010 at 8:11 am #

    I respectfully disagree. Achorn’s arguements are not debased by some factual errors any more than your case is made by recognizing same. Rhode Island’s problems will not be cured by simply consolidating school districts and some other functions.

    Our real short term problems revolve around the fact that governmental revenues on all fronts are down. If taxes are raised, the economy shrinks further. On the long term front, our infrastructure has been poorly maintained and the cost of promises made to state and local employees is rising to unaffordable levels. Rhode Island’s economy will not grow until we improve the climate for business ( 50th accoring to some sources).

    This is a great place to live, but there major obstacles to be overcome and we’re running out of time.

  6. Hy Goldman February 19, 2010 at 8:44 am #

    If we became the 23rd Right to Work state, business looking
    to start-up or expand might look at RI. It is a great place
    to live!!

  7. Fred Unger February 19, 2010 at 9:05 am #


    Thanks for honest statistical analysis. We need to deal with real facts if we are going to address the challenges we face.

    The most interesting statistics I have seen lately were in Andy Smith’s front page Journal article February 14 in which he states:

    “Between December 1999 and December 2009, the state lost 18,200 jobs, with employment falling from 472,000 to 453,800, a drop of 3.85 percent. Rhode Island lost a higher percentage of jobs than any other state in the region, although Massachusetts and Connecticut came close. Of the six New England states, only New Hampshire gained jobs in the past decade.”

    If these numbers and unemployment figures reported by the government are to believed, there must be something in some statistics that can help explain why we seem to be less successful than other states at maintaining and creating jobs. Until we honestly figure out what those factors are and all work together to change them, it seems to me we will lag the country in economic recovery.

    There must be some valid reason that New Hampshire had such remarkably positive job growth over that same decade that every other New England state lost jobs.

    Do you disagree with URI economics professor Leonard Lardaro’s quote in that article in sympathy with the plight of the EDC?:

    “We don’t have a functional state where the EDC can go to the legislature and get their goals met. They have a horrible tax-and-cost structure to sell [to business].”

    Your help in debunking the myths for simplistic solutions to our states structural problems is very much appreciated. Could you provide a similarly clear and honest analysis of where our state ranks in various forms of taxes relative to other states and also where we rank in terms of state and local public debt and unfunded liabilities on a per person basis? How do we rank regarding unionization of the work force relative to other states?

    Its great to shoot down the silly stuff that pessimists suggest, but we can’t use our optimism as an excuse to simply ignore the structural obstacles to our economic success, whatever they may be.

    On the federal level, the web site offers an important and very clear snapshot of where things stand from a fiscal perspective, using very credible public sources for their statistics. It would be great if someone where providing a similar service showing real statistics comparing all the states.

    Thanks for your clarity, your truth telling and your optimism.


  8. Bob Chaput February 19, 2010 at 9:08 am #

    I alternately think of Achorn as a hero and as a voice crying in the wilderness. I believe his goal in his persistent negativity is to awaken the electorate and force elected officials to confront the State’s problems. Overstating the case is always a danger, but even that is unlikely to effect change in a State where a Representative who even suggests consolidation of towns is voted out of office.

  9. Pat Fontes February 19, 2010 at 9:49 am #

    Since when did lying or ignorance become “overstating the case”? Something has narrowed Achorn’s vision so much that he only sees and writes a reality that he wants to see: If he repeats something often enough, he seems to believe he can make it be true. And it may just work. He makes RI seem so bad that no one would want to come here. I lived in Europe for many years. When I retired to come home to the US, my friends asked, “How can you think of going back to live in that country?” I answered proudly, “I’m going back to Rhode Island, one of the most Democratic states, a liberal place”. I am proud of Rhode Island’s social and labor policies. Let the gluttonous billionaires go somewhere else. Let the rest of us form coops and live in modest comfort and the wonder of our ocean and forest views.

  10. Henry A (Bud) Violet February 19, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    Among other things, you ought to be critical of the appointments by the Governor to the EDC Board. Its like putting old wine in a new bottle. Not one knowledgeable economic development practioner like youself appointed and so called token appointments to represent small business. Some people may argue that some of these appointees may be the root of what’s wrong with RI. The notion that some of these individuals will attempt to advance what they perceive to be meaningful economic change is unnerving. Some of these people should be asked to pony up the $100,000 they paid to the search firm to find a new director and even failed at that.Business as usual.

    Bud Violet
    Ocean State BDA

  11. Ames Colt February 19, 2010 at 10:56 am #

    Rhode Island and New England have struggled with many severe economic challenges over the past 100 years as the world’s economy has globalized.

    And RI state government has not always demonstrated sufficient wisdom and foresight about the types of economic development and sustainability we are most capable of as a state in New England.

    And we’ve certainly not made the best decisions regarding the fiscal management of our state and local governments. Nevertheless, it is fallacious to think that RI has performed dismally relative to other states and other countries. Many of our mistakes and mis-steps have been repeated elsewhere in the US and around the world. Our state and local governments have also made a lot good decisions for example in the policy areas of water resources management, environmental protection, and water-reliant economic development.

    How should we prepare for our children’s future? By recognizing and agreeing on how we should capitalize on our strengths in a future that will increasingly value environmental (natural and urban) quality, a future that will value more and more clean water, clean air, open space, public transit, quality of life, etc.

    My personal vision is for RI to become one of the most
    pro-active green states in the US because I’m convinced that those are the investments that will drive economic well-being and sustainability in a future that will be hotter, more populated, and even more integrated technologically and scientifically.

    I moved to Rhode Island in 1995 not because it offered low-cost housing and lots of jobs. If I had been seeking those values I would moved to the sunbelt. I moved here because this is where I wanted to live and raise my children. I’m here by choice, just like many many RIers. That says a lot about this place. (And look how sunbelt metro regions such as Las Vegas and Atlanta are doing now.)

  12. Jonathan Howard February 19, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

    Thanks for standing up to Edward Achorn, Scott. He may be crying in the wilderness, but it just seems like whining to me. Achorn loves Rhode Island, he just hates everyone who lives here.

    However, Achorn’s exaggerations and bad diagnosis do not excuse the willful negligence of our legislators and current governor in letting employment fall to catastrophic levels with no meaningful response or serious analysis of the causes. We are not the victims of more waste, fraud or corruption than other places, but we pay a bigger price for it in a small state.

    The really big price we pay, though, is for the utter lack of strategic leadership from Governor Carcieri. It’s not all his fault – with some exceptions, business leaders, nonprofits, big public agencies and unions have all been fighting for bigger slices of a disappearing pie instead of working on a bigger pie. And wealthy, brillant Brown U. sits on “their” hill, mostly ignoring the wreakage below. 18,000 jobs gone!

    Grow Smart’s placemaking/placesaving is a big part of an economic strategy that could work, but we can’t ignore the presence of 177,000 adult Rhode Islanders (over age 16) who lacked a high school education and/or cannot read English (per RIDE, Adult Ed, Call for Investment RFP, 2007). This huge chunk of our workforce can only do low-skill, manual jobs that simply don’t exist here now. Meanwhile, we run an urban education system that was actually designed in the 1920s to fail 40% to 50% of its students. We are busily creating the next generation of unemployable adults at huge expense.

    I buy the Grow Smart agenda. I love urban spaces, public transit and good coffee shops. I’m thrilled that people like Ames select our beautiful state as a great place to raise a family.

    But…. Grow Smart – and everyone else seeking to direct public investment – still needs to show (with data) how investments which can sometimes appear to be driven largely by lifestyle and taste preferences can help move this huge group of Rhode Islanders up the ladder.