The recent census surprised many by showing Rhode Island gained about 45,000 inhabitants and that it would not lose a congressional seat. However, the 2020 census also showed that Rhode Island is still in danger of losing a seat. Rhode Island's second
The recent census surprised many by showing Rhode Island gained about 45,000 inhabitants and that it would not lose a congressional seat. However, the 2020 census also showed that Rhode Island is still in danger of losing a seat. Rhode Island’s second congressional seat is ranked at 428. Because the House of Representatives is limited to only 435 seats, Rhode Island is eight seats away from losing its second congressional district. The 2010 census resulted in Rhode Island’s second congressional district being ranked at 419, and the 2000 census resulted in Rhode Island’s second congressional district being ranked at 385. Because of low population growth, Rhode Island is getting closer to losing a congressional seat. Unless Rhode Island adopts polices that promote economic growth, its population will continue to be essentially stagnant and Rhode Island will revert back to having only one congressional district as it did back in 1790, the year Samuel Slater started the industrial revolution in America.
In general, there is a link between economic growth and population growth. Growing economies need growing populations to supply both workers and consumers. Furthermore, communities with a growing economy attract workers from less prosperous communities. As stated by Adam Smith, the father of economics: “The most decisive mark of the prosperity of any country is the increase of the number of its inhabitants.”
Rhode Island’s history demonstrates a clear linkage between economic growth and population growth. From 1840 to 1910, Rhode Island simultaneously experienced incredible economic expansion and rapid growth in population. Spurred on by low taxation, limited regulation, and technological innovation, manufacturing employment in Rhode Island increased from 16,603 in 1839 to 120,920 by 1909. Meanwhile, its population grew from 108,830 in 1840 to 542,610 in 1910.
After the 1910 census, Rhode Island gained a third congressional seat. In reviewing the 1910 census results, the Providence Journal editorial board proudly declared that Rhode Island was “not a decadent state” and speculated that “unless a sudden and unexpected blight falls upon our manufacturing industries,” Rhode Island would see more “vacant lots … occupied by dwellings and factories.” However, according to Kurt Mayer, a Brown University sociology professor, the year 1910 marked “a turning point in the demographic history of Rhode Island, bringing to a close what might be called its Golden Age.”
From 1910 to 1970, Rhode Island’s population growth only increased by ten percent every ten years. This decline in population growth coincided with the decline in Rhode Island’s manufacturing employment, which began after the First World War. In order to wage war overseas, peace with labor had to be bought at home. In Rhode Island, textile wages increased by over 160 percent from 1916 through 1919. When the war ended, demand for textiles dropped and competition from southern textile mills, which paid its workers far less, increased. When Rhode Island mill owners tried to compete with southern factories by lowering the pay of its workers, violent strikes erupted. Mills began to close or move south. While the 1920s was a time of prosperity in other industrial regions, Rhode Island saw a significant decrease in manufacturing employment.
After the 1930 census, Rhode Island lost its third congressional seat. After reviewing the 1930 census results, a Memphis newspaper not only bragged about how “Memphis has passed Providence” in population, but proclaimed a change in “the relative importance of New England and the New South” and concluded “the change has just begun.” A Pawtucket resident sent a letter to the Providence Journal which included this Memphis newspaper editorial and warned that “the South will soon gain most of the East’s population and industries.”
The low-cost South was gaining. The Great Depression caused a further decrease in Rhode Island manufacturing employment. The Second World War boosted Rhode Island manufacturing, but it was only temporary. In 1946, the CIO’s Operation Dixie failed to unionize the South. In 1947, Congress enacted the Taft-Hartley Act, which allowed states to pass right-to-work laws. The decline of manufacturing in Rhode Island accelerated. In 1919, Rhode Island manufacturing employment had peaked at 153,499, but by 1958, it had dropped to 114,511. Today, it stands at less than 40,000.
Unable to remake itself following this de-industrialization, for the last half century, Rhode Island’s economic growth has lagged behind other states and its population has stagnated. From 1970 to 2020, Rhode Island’s population only grew by about 16 percent and had the eighth-lowest population growth in the nation. Meanwhile, from 1977-2020, Rhode Island had about the 11th lowest growth in real GDP in the country. In fact, Rhode Island was ranked last in population growth and in real GDP growth among the New England states during this time period.
Not only has Rhode Island’s economy and population been slow to grow, but its stagnation has caused young, educated people to leave. For example, in 1997, the Providence Journal reported that during the recession of the early 1990s, Rhode Island “experienced a greater flight of its people,” most of them of working age, “than any other state.” In 2007, Providence Journal reported how “young, college-educated” adults were leaving Rhode Island and URI economist Leonard Lardaro warned of Rhode Island’s “skill drain.” Lastly, in 2012, the U.S Census Bureau published a report showing that Rhode Island had a consistent net out-migration of its young, single, college-educated population since 1965.
Rhode Island was fortunate not to lose a congressional seat, but it may not be so lucky in 2030. To grow its population, Rhode Island needs to grow its economy. The economic policies that Rhode Island has followed for generations have not worked. Instead, Rhode Island should emulate low tax New Hampshire, which over the past half-century, had the fastest population growth and greatest real GDP growth in New England. Unless Rhode Island changes, ten years from now this state will probably lose a congressional seat, and my children, like other young educated people, will probably leave this state in pursuit of economic opportunity.
Steven Frias is Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman, a historian, recipient of The Coolidge Prize for Journalism, and former Chairman of the Cranston Charter Review Commission.