Yesterday’s US News & World Report had some pleasant news for Rhode Islanders: the Ocean State placed twenty-first overall in the publication’s state rankings.
A middling score is usually nothing to brag about, but it’s a refreshing headline when most people just remember CNBC’s verdict that Rhode Island is either one of the worst states—or THE worst state—in the country for business. Many people inside and outside of Rhode Island take this as an indictment of the state as a whole. Now a new body of evidence suggests that they’re wrong.
Massachusetts took the top spot, bolstered by strong education and health care ranks. Louisiana ranked at the very bottom with low marks in every category.
The ranking aggregated various assessments of a state and weighted them to differing degrees. They are as follows:
- Health Care (18%) = access, affordability, quality, and outcomes
- Education (16%) = how well states educate students in preschool, K-12, and assorted levels of higher education
- Crime & Corrections (14%) = public safety, as well as the quality and fairness of prison systems, including racial bias
- Infrastructure (14%) = quality of bridges, public transportation, the power grid, broadband, and other utilities
- Opportunity (14%) = poverty, housing affordability, and equality for women, minorities, and the disabled
- Economy (13%) = unemployment, GDP growth, migration into the state, patents, new businesses, etc.
- Government (10%) = transparency, integrity, fiscal stability, digital technology in the service of residents
Rhode Island ranked very highly in some areas and poorly in others to land on its spot in the lineup. It took seventh place in the survey for healthcare, likely due to its aggressive pursuit of strong health insurance standards that predated the Affordable Care Act, lack of government interference in women’s healthcare access or decisions, and proximity to some of the best medical schools in Massachusetts, among others.
Rhode Islanders shouldn’t be surprised by the third place ranking in relation to crime and justice. Though crime inevitably does and will always exist, gun violence and fatalities are fairly limited compared to other parts of the country. The state also has wisely avoided emphasizing the prison industry and scores low for incarceration rates and overcrowding, keeping associated costs low for residents.
What Ocean State residents may be surprised by is an eighteenth-place rank for the economy. Traditionally cited as a weak point for the state, it gets credit for a prevalence of young people capable of entering the workforce, high labor force participation, and entrepreneurship. Much of the last metric might be attributed to the hospitality industry; the density of the state’s population and the beauty of its beaches and coastal communities likely offers opportunities that are missing in a state like West Virginia.
The reliance on the hospitality industry may explain the below-average score for opportunity in Rhode Island. There are rewarding and fun opportunities throughout the industry, but for many the opposite is the only reality they know. The best opportunities for skilled manufacturing, cutting-edge programming, or finance and investing are in other cities or regions of the country.
Rhode Island may be home to some fantastic schools in Brown and Bryant, but many of its public schools are lacking and underfunded. Consequently, Rhode Island has a below-average education rank. That ties directly into the low rankings for government. To be sure, some of those low government rankings can be attributed to the lack of ethics and transparency at some of the highest levels of state leadership, but it also relates to mismanagement and incompetence at the municipal level. The financial mess that is Coventry or Lincoln’s fire departments, for example, is due in part to an unwillingness or inability for local government to make tough choices and assert its place as the guardian of the public interest.
It also has facilitated the low-rated infrastructure for the state. Love it or hate it, the truth about the Rhode Works program is that it’s a response to the glaring need to repair and improve bridges, major roadways, and other conduits for vehicles and utilities in the state. It’s bridges were the worst, and its roads third-worst. On a positive note, though, its download speeds were top of the class.
Rhode Works, investments in wind power, and the governor’s new plan for two free years of college for qualifying students feel like attempts by the state’s leaders to correct some of the weaker metrics. Outside the State House, the press and concerned citizens are actively calling on government to be more accountable, effective an honest. The trends feel positive, though the KPIs in surveys like this one and others will tell the real story.
Rhode Islanders clearly have many reasons to be proud, however. The state ranks highly in some broad categories, and even on some metrics within categories where it struggles. For those who live and work here, we’re keenly aware of what the survey can’t capture: amazing restaurants, beautiful beaches, and a friendly, welcoming community. For Rhode Island, the best is yet to come.