OPTIMISM ABOUT RI
The Providence Journal, Commentary
IN HIS ARTICLE on Jan. 20, (“Ocean State does
draw young, ambitious”), Roger Mandle painted a very favorable portrait
of the climate for young persons, especially college graduates, in Rhode
Island. His “analysis,” while purporting to be based almost entirely on
valid statistics, contains a number of invalid inferences.
Normally I don’t respond to such obviously partisan articles; I
generally just ignore them. But in that article, Mr. Mandle decided to
use me as the “straw man” for his overly rosy portrait, conveniently
taking quotes I made in a Jan. 2 Journal news article headlined “R.I.
exodus: Losing the young, ambitious.”
In the interview for the article, I noted that a number of persons who
graduate from Rhode Island colleges leave our state. I never gave any
numbers for this, and was careful to point out to the person
interviewing me that such data do not exist. Yet Mr. Mandle used this to
infer that what I was really saying was that “Rhode Island’s best and
brightest leave the state behind at the earliest opportunity,” and that
this is a primary force behind the decline in our state’s resident
population. I totally disagree with those assessments. In fact, for
young persons who do leave Rhode Island, that decision is much more of a
last act. They want to remain in Rhode Island, but are often unable to
find jobs that pay enough for them to remain here. And, I have never
stated nor would I every imply that “the best days of the state and the
region are behind us.” More straw for Mr. Mandle.
In his article, Mr. Mandle provides a statistic that he apparently
believes demonstrates that only a small number of young persons actually
leave this state, and that its consequences are relatively minor. He
cites the 2000 Census, which shows that from 1995 to 2000, about 2,900
more persons, aged 25-34 left Rhode Island (actually the Providence
metro area) than moved into the state. He dismisses any major problems
associated with this out-migration, citing the fact that many of those
persons moved to Boston and New York.
Are we to believe that this was not a problem? While Mr. Mandle
apparently wants readers to believe that such out-migration continues to
be relatively small and minor in its consequences, neither inference is
valid, given existing data and the statistic he cites.
Why did Rhode Island not suffer as much as most states in the last
recession? It failed to attain a “critical mass” in high technology.
Part of that failure was the result of Rhode Island firms’ inability to
attract sufficient numbers of skilled workers. It wasn’t that our state
didn’t have such persons; some of our talented persons opted instead to
work in the tech sectors of our neighboring states, where pay and “job
ladders” were viewed as being preferable to what was available here, or
moved to other states.
Apparently, Mr. Mandle would have readers believe that workday flight of
skilled Rhode Islanders and the exit of others had only beneficial
effects to our state. After all, he states, “We also need to think of
ourselves as part of the regional economic basin; moving to Fall River
or to Franklin, Mass., is not the same as moving to Utah.” Statistically
it is! And what about state income tax revenue and budget impact of
Ironically, Rhode Island’s high-tech failures in the 1990s insulated it
from much of the job loss experienced by states that had more success
integrating technology into their economies. That, by the way, is the
basis for the statistic Mr. Mandle cites, that since 2000 Rhode Island
job growth is the greatest of any New England state.
Hardly cause for celebration! Let’s not forget that the statistics Mr.
Mandle cites pertain to the 2000 Census, a very different world from
that of today. Unlike the year 2000, or the 1995-2000 period, Rhode
Island currently finds both its total and working-age populations
declining, and its job change is among the slowest in the nation (it has
been hovering recently around No. 47). The latter trend, by the way, was
the basis for my observation that Rhode Island will never be
characterized as a “job creation machine.” I can’t imagine any reason
why Rhode Island might be experiencing net in-migration at the present
time, or any basis upon which to conclude that the amount of net
out-migration has moderated.
If anything, it has probably grown. But those are only hypotheses, based
on my interpolation of existing data and trends at present. I can’t say
for sure. And neither can Mr. Mandle!
I could go on and on, but there is one other area I will comment on. Mr.
Mandle cites a valid statistic: “Rhode Island’s 11 colleges make it one
of the strongest magnets for young talent in the nation, and as a
consequence the state has one of the highest percentages of college
students as a portion of the total population in the country.”
While I have no doubt these statistics are correct, let me pose several
important questions that Mr. Mandle should have addressed in his
How many of the persons who graduate from Rhode Island institutions of
higher education each year remain in this state and become employed here
as their first job? How has this figure been changing over the past
decade? How does Rhode Island compare in this to the other New England
states? To the best of my knowledge, these data with not exist. If I am
correct, that raises another question: Why doesn’t Rhode Island track
something this central to its economic future?
Rhode Island does some very positive things for college graduates. Mr.
Mandle cited several in his article. But how effective have these
efforts been? Does our state analyze their effectiveness? My guess is
that it does not. If it does track this information, why didn’t Mr.
Mandle cite this in his article?
Mr. Mandle’s attempt to provide an extremely optimistic view of our
state’s economy and what it offers young persons is commendable.
Unfortunately, the underlying basis of his argument is seriously flawed,
making most of his inferences questionable at best.
by Leonard Lardaro