Rhode Island vs. Massachusetts: The Economic Myths

Oct 10, 2013

It seems sometimes like every Rhode Island business and political leader points to the better economy in Massachusetts. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay looked across the state border and finds more myth than reality.

Rhode Island has for more than a century lived in the long shadow of Massachusetts. Boston is a world-class city clotted with universities, clusters of high-technology innovation, venture capital  and some of the world’s top medical centers. Massachusetts is the birthplace of presidents, U.S. House speakers  and Supreme Court justices. It has the  major league Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics and  Patriots.  Rhode Island has the minor league teams, the Pawsox and the P-Bruins. Rhode Island has fine educational institutions, but not as many as Massachusetts.

Massachusetts is home to universal health care and the highest achievement test scores in the country for its public school students.  Rhode Island is struggling to put into effect its Obamacare marketplace and our public schools don’t score as high as our neighbor.

Rhode Islanders have long had an inferiority complex . And we often point to the economy.   The unemployment rate, a universal economic measure, is  7.2 percent in the Bay State and 9.1 percent in the Ocean State.

This leads to the usual political blame game. Rhode Island is behind, goes this trope, because our politicians aren’t   forward-looking and smart like those in Massachusetts.  Even such a savvy entrepreneur as Alan Tear, cofounder of Beta Spring, a business start-up program based in Providence, spouts this line.

Public officials, Tear told the Providence Journal, ``can use the bully pulpit much more effectively to talk about entrepreneurship as a big idea. In constituency politics, that’s often lost.’’ Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino ``have put enormous emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship, as as a result Boston and Massachusetts as a whole are thriving.’’


Yes, the Boston economy inside Route 128 is strong; it is one of the five or six places in the world where new ideas are born. But have you driven through Fall River or New Bedford  recently? The ancient granite and red brick mills that churned out rolls of cotton and finished textile products  stand as gloomy reminders of what they once were.  The fishing industry is in the doldrums and neither city has a major college or university to serve as a fulcrum of future growth.

Fall River’s unemployment rate is  12.3 percent and New Bedford’s is 13.1 percent;  both are higher than any Rhode Island community.

Truth be told, a look inside the Massachusetts education data shows that the state has many of the same challenges as Rhode Island: How to close the yawning chasm in student achievement between wealthy communities and poor ones.  According to the latest test results of the MCAS test required for high school graduation, the wealthiest communities are the top scorers. The lowest scorers are such poor communities as New Bedford, Fall River, Lawrence and Springfield.

And a study by Citizens for Public Schools, a Boson-based think tank, shows that while Massachusetts is indeed atop the national charts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, the state ranks in the bottom-tier among states in progress toward closing the achievement gap  for black, Hispanic and low-income students.

Unlike Rhode Island, Massachusetts state government has for two decades made big investments in education, both in kindergarten through high school and also in public higher education.  When the recession hit in 2008, the response of Rhode  Island Gov. Donald Carcieri and our General Assembly was to cut income taxes for the highest earners and slash state aid to cities and towns. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and the legislature did just the opposite, raising the sales tax by 1.25 percent to avoid starving cities of state money.

Massachusetts has over the years avoided some of the dumb policies followed by Rhode Island’s politicians, the 38 Studios –Curt Schilling fiasco being the most recent.

Maybe you think that the Bay State is doing better because it has fewer public employees and less state bureaucracy. Again,  not so. Rhode Island has the second-fewest government workers among the 50 states as a share of all employees, according to a New York Times analysis of federal  government data.

Massachusetts has a better educated and healthier workforce and substantially fewer children being raised in poverty, according to figures compiled by Rhode Island Kids Count. And the Bay State has made more investments in transportation projects than the Ocean State.

Rhode Island’s political and economic leaders have too often looked for silver bullets, whether it is the Schilling deal or the current conservative flavor of the week, severe cuts in state sales taxes. The Carcieri income tax cuts didn’t jump start the economy; is there any reason to believe that getting rid of sales taxes will accomplish anything?

Fact is, Rhode Islanders who are well-educated and work hard are doing about as well as their Massachusetts colleagues. When will Rhode Island wake up to the reality that change is incremental and that there isn’t any substitute for investing in the basics -- education and infrastructure?

(Editor's Note: A previous version of this post incorrectly reported an unemployment data comparison between some Rhode Island and Massachusetts communities.)

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org