State population declines, R.I. may lose House seat

The decline corresponds with an unemployment rate that is among the highest in the nation

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2013

Rhode Island’s population has been steadily decreasing since 2004, according to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Sixteen of Rhode Island’s 32 cities and towns  lost residents, according to data from the 2010 census. Middletown and Newport experienced the greatest population declines, with each losing 6.8 percent of its citizens. Rhode Island and Vermont are the only two states that have seen significant decreases in population in the past year.

The decline in state residents correlates with Rhode Island’s high unemployment rate, which began to increase steadily in 2006 and peaked in 2010 at nearly 12 percent. The state’s unemployment rate stood approximately 3 percentage points higher than the national average in December, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of the state’s over 500,000 available workers, nearly 60,000 residents were unemployed.

Unemployment rates and labor movement are closely intertwined, said Nathaniel Baum-Snow, associate professor of economics. Unemployment is “the underlying force that pushes population trends,” he said. “If you find a job somewhere else and you have to move to take it, you will.”

Population change is also caused by a variety of factors beyond economic decline, Baum-Snow said. Businesses and people want to relocate to states with higher numbers of skilled workers, he added.

“The economy has shifted to become more skill-oriented,” Baum-Snow said, noting that Rhode Island’s workforce is less skilled than those of neighboring states like Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 described the decrease in population as an effect stemming from the state’s economic downturn and an aging population, the Associated Press reported. Younger residents have left Rhode Island in search of long-term employment, Chafee said. To combat this, Chafee said he plans to revitalize downtown Providence in an effort to attract a young and better-educated workforce.

Baum-Snow said educating Rhode Island’s workforce is the most sustainable long-term option for reversing the population decline. Reducing the tax burden on local businesses is a good strategy, he said, but it is not a sustainable solution.

“It won’t reverse the trend,” he said. The costs to lowering business taxes may outweigh the benefits, he added. For example, lower business tax rates can force state and local governments to cut services and programs.

The state’s population decline could result in political ramifications at the federal level — Rhode Island currently holds two seats in the House of Representatives, but if the population continues to decline at the current rate, the state may lose one of those seats. This could potentially pit the state’s current congressmen, Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., and Rep. David Cicilline ’83, D-R.I., against one another in 2022, analysts have noted.

Montana, which as of July 2012 had a population of 994,000 — a figure that is quickly increasing — would likely receive Rhode Island’s lost seat. If current population trends persist, Montana’s population will exceed that of Rhode Island by 2020, earning the western state another seat in Congress.

Rhode Island is one of the most densely populated states in the nation — second to New Jersey — with over 1,000 people per square mile, according to the Census, while Montana is one of the least densely populated, only 6.8 people per square mile.

Baum-Snow said people are attracted to the lower cost of living in the west, where home prices are lower on-average.

“Rhode Island is densely populated,” he added. “This isn’t a new phenomenon for Rhode Island — it’s been going on for 50 years.”