BOULDER, Colorado -- While Michigan is often cited (including in this blog) as being on the leading edge of America's economic downturn, many people would be surprised to learn that Rhode Island also has one of the country's highest unemployment rates, which hit a whopping 9.3% in November. This ranked second behind Michigan's figure of 9.6%, and the two states have seesawed back and forth for the top spot over the last few months.
There are many reasons for this terrible situation - the collapse of manufacturing, poor job retraining, and low levels of education. Rhode Island ranks well behind every other New England state except Maine in terms of the percentage of the workforce with a college education - Massachusetts and Connecticut rank first and sixth, respectively, nationwide, while Rhode Island sits in 19th place. The Washington Post recently posted this video about the state's economic plight, and the New York Times ran this piece on the subject back in October.
Rhode Island is a very provincial place, and residents are struggling to cope with economic transition. Mason Briggs is reluctant to take a job in Oxford, Massachusetts, a town a mere 40 miles away from Pawtucket. His wife catalogs all the towns she has worked in, but they are all only a few miles apart. I am not blaming these people for their hardships, but there are reasons why the state's economic malaise has been confined within its short borders. I am not callously suggesting that they pick up stakes and move, but some measure of economic relief is just a short communte down I-95.
I have always believed that reviving America's manufacturing base will be a critical component of restoring the country's economic competitiveness and fixing the imbalances and inequalities that currently exist. But it is important not to get too nostalgic about the post-war golden age of the American industrial worker that so many pine for. As Itchy mentions about battery manufacturing, many of these jobs and industries are dirty and unpleasant, and few of us would like a factory like this in our backyard. Manufacturing may have given every American family an icebox and a wireless, but it also gave us the Love Canal.
These industries also had an impact on education. In places like Michigan, and to a lesser extent Rhode Island, the existence of high-paying, low-skill manufacturing jobs actually created huge disincentives for people to pursue an education, when they felt confident that as soon as they graduated high school, they would be able to get lifetime employment at the local plant. As a result, Michigan languishes in 36th place when it comes to educational attainment, when its industries should be a source of innovation and research.
To combat this problem, some communities have adopted innovative plans. Last year the city of Kalamazoo introduced a plan they called "The Kalamazoo Promise," which established a scholarship fund that would pay full tuition to any Michigan state college for any student that graduated from the school district. The program has not only increased school enrollment, but it has boosted property values, and cities across the country are hoping to imitate it.
Of course, there is one growth industry in Rhode Island: incarceration. The immigration detention center in Central Falls has been doing booming business, especially since Rhode Island became the only state to mandate that all state and local law enforcement agencies enforce federal immigration law. This is a story that has been repeated across the country from Flint, Michigan to Susanville, California, when laid-off workers move from the assembly line to the corrections academy. Let's all hope that the next generation of workers is made up of more engineers than prison guards.
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