“Voters are looking not just for a return to normal, but a better way to run the state government and take care of each other.”
As lawmakers prepare to return to Smith Hill to write a new state budget, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
In the coming year, Rhode Islanders will confront challenge after challenge. Some of them will be new — relatively speaking, at least — like the evolving public health crisis and unprecedented joblessness. Others, like racial inequity and an economy that feels rigged, have been present for far too long.
Residents will bear the consequences of the next state budget for years to come, for better or for worse. Faced with their own set of challenges, most prominently a contracted tax base, lawmakers may be tempted to return to the playbook of shortcuts used during the Great Recession — reduce tax rates on the wealthy, restrict access to the social safety net, cut aid to localities and slash public sector employment — and hope it works this time.
But a new poll suggests that Rhode Islanders are looking for a better path forward, not more of the same.
In late June, the Hassenfeld Institute at Bryant University partnered with Fleming & Associates to survey registered Rhode Island voters on a range of issues in the state including racial inequity, income inequality and unemployment. Voters’ responses show nothing less than a state in crisis and a populous demanding a response that meets the moment.
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Here’s a breakdown of key findings — and what advocates say they tell us about where to go from here.
The poll finds broadly-shared concern about racial inequity and injustice. Pollsters asked voters two questions relating to these issues — one about whether “race relations” are a problem in the state, and another about accountability for police misconduct.
Seven in ten voters — 71 percent — say race relations are a big or moderate problem. While concern is broadly shared, it is most acutely felt among lower-income voters. Of those with household incomes below $25,000, half say race relations are a big problem, and another quarter say they are a moderate problem. The poll did not record responses by voters’ race.
Nearly six in ten — 57 percent — say the “process of handling police misconduct cases” is a big or moderate problem in Rhode Island. The poll finds majority agreement on this issue across age groups and among lower-income and middle-income voters alike.
To Taylor Ellis, a spokesperson for advocacy group Reclaim RI, voters’ responses are evidence that Rhode Islanders demand change on racial equity and justice. For more evidence, Ellis cites the 10,000 person Providence rally in protest of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement — the largest rally or protest in recent state history — plus the dozens of demonstrations and organizing activities that continue in communities across the state.
“The protestors that have gathered since George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murder by police are not only coming out against visible instances of police brutality, but against the many ways our society does not value Black people’s lives and prosperity,” Ellis says. “Any policy program seeking to remedy inequality must acknowledge these legacies of enslavement and exclusion.”
Reclaim RI supports divestment from carceral systems, as well as increased funding for public services including education and health care. “We know from polling — and the pandemic’s confluence with protests against policing — that these three issues are of the highest priority for Rhode Island residents, as in much of the country,” Ellis says. “The people of Rhode Island do not need more police or larger prisons, but they could certainly use better schools and health care.”
To Georgia Hollister-Isman, director of the Rhode Island Working Families Party, the poll results reinforce the imperative for lawmakers to take bold action to address longstanding disparities. “The global pandemic and the uprisings in defense of Black lives are revealing a lot that has been wrong in Rhode Island for a long time,” says Hollister-Isman, “and they’re changing the minds of many voters about what is possible and what is necessary. It’s never been clearer that inequality and oppression are baked into how our society and economy are structured.”
In a slate of proposals they call the Justice Budget platform, local groups including Reclaim RI and the Working Families Party urge lawmakers to “reduce reliance on police for responding to harm and invest in meaningful community-based services and alternatives to policing and incarceration informed by those most directly impacted by the criminal legal system.” The platform includes measures to decrease the population in the state’s prison, jail, immigration detention and youth corrections system, and instead direct more funds to community services, alternatives to policing and incarceration, and re-entry supports including education and affordable housing.
The poll also finds voters deeply concerned about income inequality. Seven in ten voters — 71 percent — say the growing gap in income between the rich and poor is a problem in Rhode Island. Four in ten — 40 percent — say it is a big problem. Among all voters, those worried by income inequality outnumber unworried voters more than three to one. There is majority agreement in all age groups and in nearly every income bracket, and concern is highest among Democrats, older voters, moderate-income voters and members of labor unions.
“It is unsurprising that Rhode Island residents are concerned about income inequality, with Providence ranking as one of the most unequal cities in the country as recently as two years ago,” says Ellis.
Inequality in Rhode Island has soared in recent decades. From 1975 to 2015, the inflation-adjusted pre-tax incomes of the richest 10 percent of Rhode Islanders rose 86 percent, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute. Over the same period, incomes of the other 90 percent of Rhode Islanders rose just 36 percent. As a result, the top 10 percent now receive nearly half of all pre-tax income earned in Rhode Island each year, the largest slice in nearly a century’s worth of data. Meanwhile, policymakers have lowered taxes on the wealthy across the country — including in Rhode Island, where the top state income tax rate has dropped from 17 percent in 1975 to 5.99 percent in the present day.
Economic experts worry that income and wealth inequalities have been worsened by Congress and President Trump’s insufficient response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Layoffs — as well as the virus itself — have disproportionately hit lower-wage workers, Black and Latinx workers and women, and the temporary safety net established to absorb the shock is already unraveling. “The pandemic crisis will widen the already worrisome levels of income, racial, and gender inequality in the U.S,” Dimitri Papadimitriou, president of the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College, recently told ABC News. “This engenders an element of a vicious circle at work: not only will the pandemic and its fallout worsen inequality; inequality will exacerbate the spread of the virus, not to mention undermine any ensuing economic recovery efforts.”
State leaders must take action to ensure a recovery that is both equitable and sustainable, Hollister-Isman says, because “it’s never been clearer that our futures are tied to each other” — and it’s time our economy more accurately reflected that truth.
The Working Families Party and Reclaim RI both support a restoration of higher tax rates on the wealthy paired with greater funding for programs that generate broad-based growth and well-being. In this year’s budget, Ellis says, lawmakers must make it a priority to “put an end to tax rates that benefit the wealthy at everyone else’s expense,” in order to safeguard and invest in “the social services that matter most: universal health care, affordable housing for all and high quality education in well-maintained facilities.”
The poll also finds nearly-universal concern about unemployment. Three in four voters — 76 percent — say joblessness is a big or moderate problem facing the state, and half say it’s a major issue. Concerns stretch across party lines and across generations: Among Democrats, Republicans, Independents, young voters, middle-age voters and older voters alike, 75 percent or more say unemployment is a problem, and worried voters outnumber unworried ones approximately five to one. Labor union members, who represent 17 percent of the state’s workforce, report the most concern.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 230,000 Rhode Island workers have filed for unemployment, according to the Department of Labor and Training. In the month of April alone, nearly a decade’s worth of job gains were wiped out as the state’s unemployment rate jumped to 18 percent. The current unemployment rate is just over 12 percent, higher than any point during the Great Recession.
Lower-wage workers, many of whom were already struggling to make ends meet, have been among the hardest hit. In leisure and hospitality, the industry where employment was most pummeled by COVID-19, jobs are still down nearly 40 percent months into the crisis. And even long before the pandemic, these workers were stretched thin: In 2019, the median food service worker received a wage of just $12.58, the lowest of any major occupation in the state.
Workers of color have also been disproportionately impacted by job loss — an outcome which is the result of longstanding inequities. Black and Latinx workers in Rhode Island have historically faced unemployment and underemployment at twice the rates of their white counterparts, and Black households have long faced a large and persistent wealth gap relative to white households, making spells of joblessness more damaging. Prior to COVID-19, Black and Latinx Rhode Islanders were also far more likely to lack access to health care, a disparity likely made worse as laid-off workers and their families lose employer-provided health insurance.
Many of these workers were let go because their jobs became unsafe to perform. Others suddenly found themselves unable to work, as child care centers and schools closed or went virtual. To provide relief to households and buoy the economy, Congress passed the CARES Act in March, which provided an additional $600 per week to unemployed workers. This system, while robust, was temporary. Now, with federal support gone and safe job opportunities still few and far between, families across Rhode Island are experiencing extraordinary hardship.
Addressing Rhode Island’s unemployment crisis will require meeting the immediate needs of jobless workers and their families. To ensure workers have safe jobs to return to, the Justice Budget platform proposes that lawmakers enact industry-standard hazard pay and guarantee the provision of protective equipment. To stabilize incomes, the groups propose expanding Rhode Island’s unemployment insurance system to include self-employed and gig workers, and increasing the level of aid given to out-of-work parents.
Deep-rooted inequities must also be confronted. A full recovery from the multitude of challenges facing Rhode Island will not be achieved by returning to the January 2020 status quo, advocates emphasize. Instead, it will require investing over the long-term in a more resilient and equitable economy.
“Voters are looking not just for a return to normal,” says Hollister-Isman, “but a better way to run the state government and take care of each other.”