Gary Sasse: Rekindling the American Dream in Rhode Island
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
In a 2012 essay in Time Magazine the Pulitzer Prize writer Jon Meacham suggested that the American Dream had seen better days. He said, “The great enemy of democratic capitalism, economic inequality is real and growing.” This pretty much describes what may be happening here in Rhode Island. The question that we have to address is what can be done to rekindle the American Dream for working families and the middle class? The middle class is not defined solely by income, but rather by the aspiration to own a home, provide a college education for their children and achieve retirement security.
An Equity Profile of Rhode Island
An Equity Profile of Rhode Island prepared for Rhode Map RI is one of the most informative reports about the social and economic fabric of Rhode Island that has been released in recent memory. The mission of Rhode Map RI, which is being lead by the Rhode Island Division of Planning, is to develop a plan to build stronger, resilient communities with good jobs for our citizens. The authors of this report are Policy Link and the University of Southern California Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE).
The principle finding in An Equity Profile of Rhode Island is “While the state demonstrates much economic strength, wide racial gaps in income, health and opportunity –coupled with a shrinking middle class –places its economic future at risk.” The 103- page report provides ample data to document its findings.
According to the Brooking Institution as of March 2013 Rhode Island ranked 92nd among the 100 largest metropolitan regions of the United States in economic recovery.
Growing Income Inequality
Income inequality has been increasing in Rhode Island. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Progress Institute characterized income trends in the Ocean State as “A lost decade for Rhode Island‘s low-and middle- income households.”
Since 1979 PERE reports that the share of Rhode Island households with middle-class incomes decreased from 40 to 37 percent. Conversely, the portion of low-income households grew from 30 to 36 percent.
Since the economic recovery began the New England Economic Partnership reported that Rhode Island was the only state in the nation that actually lost middle- class jobs. These are jobs that generally require less than a bachelor’s degree but more than a high school diploma.
Minorities represent the fastest growing population groups in Rhode Island. Unfortunately, due to a lack of educational achievement they are being hit particularly hard by Rhode Island’s uneven economic recovery. By 2040 four out of ten Rhode Islanders will be people of color. Unless this education-skills gap is closed Rhode Island’s economy will not realize its full potential. The Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University reported that “the Latino –White achievement gaps in Rhode Island are among the worst in the country.” The PERE report found that by 2018 42% of jobs will require at least an associate’s degree. However, only 21% of U.S. - borne Latinos and 30% of African Americans had that level of education in 2010.
Early Literacy: A Key to the Future Success of Rhode Island
A leading authority on competitiveness strategy Harvard Professor Michael Porter believes that a state’s economic competitiveness is determined by the productivity with which it utilizes its human, capital and natural resources. To create a productive environment for business to grow and prosper in Rhode Island job one is to cultivate a future workforce that is highly literate, knowledgeable and skilled.
A critical yardstick for success in closing the achievement-skills deficit is to make sure that students are proficient readers by the time they are in the fourth grade. Research shows that students who are not reading at grade level in the fourth grade generally fall behind their peers and run a much higher risk of not becoming economically self-sufficient citizens.
While there has been progress, only 38% of Rhode Island’s fourth graders are reading proficiently. RI-CAN noted that less than 20% of Black and Latino fourth graders scored proficient in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress--the nation’s report card.
The National Governors Association has proposed a plan of action for governors to use for youth in promoting reading proficiency by the fourth grade. Implementation of this plan may well require increased state spending. It calls for expanded access to quality child-care, pre -kindergarten, full-day kindergarten and proactively engaging parents as partners in language and literacy development. Gubernatorial candidates should become familiar with the Governor’s Guide to Early Literacy: Getting All Students Reading By Third Grade.
Getting all students reading at grade level also requires fundamental reform in school organization and accountability. Quality educational opportunities must be made available to all families. This will require breaking down barriers to access top performing public schools. As former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “Parental choice is the civil rights issue of our day.” It will also necessitate increased focus on school assessment and accountability. For example, teacher tenure practices should be reviewed to insure that tenure is earned on a record of solid performance and effectiveness.
When coupled with reforms, additional tax dollars may be required to provide start-up costs for school districts to provide full-day kindergartens, expansion of State pre-kindergarten programs and enhancing parental outreach and professional development programs.
The person delivering the gubernatorial inaugural address of 2015 will speak to a state that not only faces difficult economic challenges but is also experiencing a rapid demographic transformation. The inaugural message must outline a strategy for rekindling the American Dream by ensuring everybody is given the opportunity to participate. This starts with maintaining high expectations for closing the achievement gap confronting Rhode Island’s fastest growing groups, increasing educational choices for all families and holding schools accountable for results.
Gary Sasse is Founding Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University. He is the former Executive Director Rhode Island Public Expenditure and Director of the Departments of Administration and Revenue.
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