My Turn (op-ed): Douglas Hall: News of R.I.’s demise exaggerated

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By Douglas Hall

It’s time to stop measuring the Ocean State’s well-being with someone else’s yardstick, and instead decide for ourselves what kind of state we want to live in, and what we need to do to get there. We also need to critically examine state-rankings to better understand their purpose, methodology, credibility, ideological underpinnings, and associated policy agendas.

Three national rankings that have been prominently featured in the media recently provide important cases in point.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2017 Kids Count Data Book urges policymakers to “make … investments that help U.S. children become healthier, more likely to complete high school and better positioned to contribute to the nation’s economy as adults”, highlighting state data on economic well-being, education, health, family and community. Rhode Island ranks 29th, faring better on the composite indicators for education (20th) and health (13th), than for family and community (32nd) and economic well-being (34th). As a measure of child well-being, the data book is widely respected as a credible resource informing state policy choices.

The Family Prosperity Index (FPI) is published by the American Conservative Union Foundation, “the nation’s original conservative organization.” The FPI highlights “family values” indicators, including the marital status of mothers, illicit drug use, and church attendance, with Rhode Island ranking 48th among all states. The most obvious measures of “family prosperity” which show Rhode Island faring considerably better — median family income (12th) and mean family income (16th) — are not included in the report.

The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s CEO, Mike Stenhouse, recently invoked Rhode Island’s ranking on the FPI to justify an attack on humane workplace policies pursued by the 2017 General Assembly, without demonstrating how these policies, such as the provision of earned paid sick days or a higher minimum wage, undermine the indicators emphasized by the FPI.

The CNBC annual ranking of “America’s Top States for Business” assesses states on broad categories such as workforce, infrastructure, and education. CNBC’s “scorecard on state economic climate” measures factors important for business competitiveness, though its weighting of each category of indicators is based on “how often states use them as selling points to attract business.”

It ranks Rhode Island 45th, while assigning Washington state the highest ranking (notable given Washington’s role as a leader in family- and worker-friendly policies Stenhouse describes as “the progressives’ job-killing, big-spending agenda”, such as a nation-leading minimum wage of $11 per hour, provision of paid sick days, and significant investment in both early childhood education and retirement security). Washington’s impressive employment growth, paired with CNBC’s top ranking strongly suggests that, at the very least, the policies which Stenhouse describes as job-killers are not harmful, and instead may improve the economy.

Policymakers, journalists and the Rhode Island public would be wise to look more deeply at the underpinnings of various state rankings, especially those that purport to measure the factors that lead to economic growth and prosperity. A new resource, Grading the States: Business Climate Rankings and the Real Path to Prosperity [www.gradingstates.org], looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the leading “business climate” rankings. As a tool for deeper understanding, it’s a great place to start.

Douglas Hall is the director of economic and fiscal policy at the Economic Progress Institute, formerly the Poverty Institute.

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