R.I. inequality: Get past the cliches and seek solutions

May 25, 2014

With all the attention given by R.I. media to economic inequality, one wonders why serious discussion of   solutions has gone AWOL.

Just about everybody agrees that inequality has grown for the past three decades. With Rhode Island’s anemic recovery from the Great Recession, the problem is deeper in our small corner of southeastern New England.

It is way past time for a Statehouse debate on making work pay via raising the minimum wage. Rhode Island will soon lag seriously behind the New England region in the minimum wage. Both Connecticut and Vermont have recently enacted boosts in the minimum wage. Vermont’s floor wage will increase from $8.73 an hour to $10.50 over the next four years.
In Connecticut the minimum wage will hike to $10.10 an hour, the threshold suggested by President Barack Obama. Even West Virginia has established a minimum wage higher than the Rhode Island level of $8 an hour.

And Massachusetts is poised to raise the state minimum wage.

So far, there has been lots of talk in the media and at the Rhode Island Statehouse about cutting taxes and business regulations, but scant mention of increasing the minimum wage, a move that would help the working poor escape poverty.

Another good move would be to encourage unionization of low wage workers, especially in businesses that are insulated from foreign competition and automation, most prominently the fast-food industry.

State and local governments could also invest in infrastructure, especially in construction that saves energy and makes out transportation system better. Rhode Island has thousands of idle and underemployed construction and building trades workers. Such investments would put them to work. This should be done while interest rates are still low, so that taxpayers aren’t unduly burdened.

In the long-term there is no  better way to create a better workforce than investing in  education, which has been a wellspring of social and economic mobility in this state  and nation for eons.

Yes, we should elect better leaders. But beware the talk show favorite fantasy of electing candidates whose experience is mainly in business, rather than the political arena. Let’s remember that Donald Carcieri was never elected to anything before becoming governor, but he had a long resume in business. Yet it was Carcieri who pushed the fiasco that became 38 Studios and left taxpayers on the hook for $90 million when the company collapsed.