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R.I. tops regional poverty rates

The state’s people of color remain disproportionately affected by poverty, according to Census data

In 2013, Rhode Island’s poverty rate rose to 14.3 percent — up from 13.7 percent in 2012 — the highest poverty rate in New England, according to data released Sept. 18 by the Census Bureau. This increase fell within the survey’s 1.2 percentage point margin of error.

Rhode Island replaced Maine as the state with the highest poverty rate in New England. In 2012, Maine had a poverty rate of 14.9 percent, but this has since fallen to 14 percent.  Despite its high ranking within New England, Rhode Island’s poverty rate remains lower than that of the entire nation, which was 15.8 percent in 2013.

The poverty rate remains especially high for Rhode Islanders of color, according to a report based on Census Bureau data that was written by The Economic Progress Institute, a Rhode Island based nonprofit that seeks to improve the status of the state’s low-income residents. In 2013, 37.6 percent of Hispanic or Latino residents and 30 percent of African American residents lived in households with an income below the federal poverty line.

Kate Brewster, executive director of the Institute, noted that the change from last year to this year was “not statistically significant,” meaning that the variation fell within the survey’s margin of error. But in any case, “it sends a strong signal that the recovery has been too slow for too many people in our state.”

While Rhode Island’s history with poverty cannot be attributed to any single economic phenomenon, many point to the widespread loss of manufacturing jobs over the course of the 20th century and their replacement with service sector jobs that, Brewster said, “just don’t pay.”

Rhode Island’s former leading role in the textile and jewelry industries placed it among the many New England states that were “hard hit by deindustrialization,” said John Logan, professor of sociology. In contrast with the Boston area, which was able to replace its industry with development in other sectors, like health or finance, Rhode Island was not successful in facilitating growth in these areas.

Logan said he was skeptical of the state government’s ability to make a meaningful impact on poverty in Rhode Island — calling discussion surrounding it, for the most part, “symbolic politics.” He also noted that lowering taxes on corporations to create jobs was unlikely to effect meaningful change.

Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, said more work could be done by the state to support education and training for those without work. Though the state has provided more housing-related assistance in recent years, many find it hard to move out of subsidized housing without the training necessary to reenter the workforce, he said.

“Community organizations have been stretched to the max since the recession hit,” Brewster said. The government must facilitate workforce development and skill training for more competitive, higher earning jobs in order to “build a bridge to the middle class,” she added.


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