THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Like a Whisper

Rhode Island's quiet depopulation

by Sophie Kasakove & Rick Salamé

published September 26, 2014


In late July I saw James Diossa, the 20-something mayor of Central Falls, shaking hands with supporters of state representative candidate Shelby Maldonado at her fundraiser. I was there as an intern for UNITE HERE, where Maldonado was also employed. Angel Taveras and Gina Raimondo made 30-second appearances, and Speaker of the House Mattiello held court over by the bar. I eventually walked over to the ever-smiling Diossa and asked him whether he remembered doing an interview back in May with someone named Sophie Kasakove from The College Hill Independent about depopulation in Rhode Island. He claimed to remember, and I asked how he felt about the way things were going in Central Falls. He quickly blurted out that there was no depopulation problem and stopped me before I could press him. Abruptly, he insisted he had to leave the fundraiser immediately, though half an hour later I spotted him near the buffet, grinning away. Rhode Island’s population is indeed shrinking, but you’ll never hear it on the campaign trail. Everyone’s embarrassed.

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A typical classroom at Warwick Veterans Public High School has between eight and nine students. This is not an indication of a progressive mission to reduce class sizes: the city of Warwick simply doesn’t have enough children to fill its schools. Over the past two decades, the city’s school population has been decreasing by one to two percent each year, dropping from 19,000 in the 1970s to 9,900 in 2013, according to Warwick parent David Testa. Estimates indicate that the city will lose another 1,000 students in the next 10 years.

This dramatic drop in school population has led to the closure of several public schools in the city in the past decade, with more closings and consolidations in the works. Recently, the school board proposed transferring the population of Warwick Veterans High School to Pilgrim High School on the other side of town. The plan was met with so much resistance from Warwick Vets students, parents, and teachers that it was suspended, pending reevaluation by an outside consulting committee. Many Warwick families had deep ties to the school, with multiple generations having attended, according to the Providence Journal.

Cities and towns all across Rhode Island have faced similar challenges resulting from depopulation in recent years. In the past three years alone Rhode Island’s population fell by nearly 3,000 people, making its growth rate the slowest in the country. Numerically speaking, this population decrease has two major causes: the decrease in birth rate and an increase in out-of-state migration. The slowing of birth rates is fairly consistent with regional trends, as census results show that New England is the least fertile region in the US. More concerning for state politicians and residents is the state’s net migration rate: for most of the last quarter-century, Rhode Island residents have been steadily moving to other states. In five separate years, the state lost 10,000 or more residents to other states, peaking at a loss of 12,566 in 2006, on the eve of the financial crisis. The loss in population is so severe that Rhode Island is likely to lose one of its two delegates to the US House of Representatives in the coming years.

According to Rhode Island’s Principle Planner Amanda Martin, the recession, which “started early and lasted longer in Rhode Island than in other states,” has had a direct effect on the state’s population. High unemployment rates, poor housing stock, and few business opportunities have sent thousands to economically stable neighboring states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut, in many cases leaving behind those without the resources to do so. Today almost a third of the state’s population is classified as low-income. 

The largely invisible weight of this economic pull that Connecticut and Massachusetts exert on Rhode Islanders is felt most strongly when it comes to economic regulation. One of the most controversial items in the Rhode Island’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget was Article 11 Section 4, which prohibited municipalities from setting minimum wages higher than the state’s. Over the course of the floor debate, supporters of the preemption kept coming back to one simple point: Rhode Island is a small state and it has to remain economically competitive with its neighbors. High—or worse, diverse—minimum wages would send jobs across the border, they said. Rhode Island’s minimum wage is set to rise from eight dollars per hour to nine dollars per hour on January 1, a figure that is also being adopted by Connecticut and Massachusetts. Estimates made before the change in minimum pay showed that the state would not reach pre-recession levels of employment until between 2018 and 2020. New estimates are needed as a result of the changes in the region; whether they will be more or less positive for RI remains to be seen.

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Rhode Island does, however, have a fairly robust culture of education. With a number of major universities across the state, there remains a steady stream of young people entering the state every year. Yet, a large number of students leave the state after graduating college, a source of major concern for state and local politicians. In an interview with the Independent, James Diossa said that it is crucial that the state make a concerted effort to rebrand itself as an attractive place for young entrepreneurs. Diossa says that Central Falls is working on a program from which graduates of Rhode Island College could receive free housing in Central Falls if they work as educators in the city’s public school system. The city is trying to establish itself as an alternative option for young business people and artists who want to live in a tight-knit community with easy access to Providence and Boston.

Central Falls’ efforts are not directed at overall population growth: it is one of the few cities in Rhode Island that has seen significant growth in recent years, gaining 1,000 residents in the past decade. With an area of only 1.29 square miles, it is the smallest and most densely populated city in Rhode Island. The city’s growth efforts aim to reshape its demographics in order to create sustainable growth in the city. Only eight percent of the city’s population, overwhelmingly made up of recent Hispanic immigrants, has a bachelor’s degree or higher; nearly a quarter of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. In luring students to Central Falls with the promise of free housing, Diossa hopes to develop business growth in the beleaguered city.

Cities like Warwick are also making a concerted effort to draw in new residents. For Warwick, these efforts are born of desperation: the city’s population has fallen by 3,000 in the past 10 years, now estimated at 82,672 people. If current trends continue, the city is expected to have a population of 74,701 people in 2040. When I asked Warwick’s mayor, Scott Avedisian, about the city’s drop in population, he blamed it on the TF Green Airport expansion, which he claims has forced about 1,000 residents to leave their homes over the past 10 years. But even if his statement is accurate, it doesn’t explain the projection of future population decline. “Our population, though it has declined, is relatively stable if you look at our percentages,” he said in response to a question about the economic and social impact of depopulation. “Over 90 percent of residents live in the same house for over a year.” When I pressed him to elaborate on his answer, he got annoyed. “They don’t have homes,” he said, “their homes were taken. It’s not as if they’re making a conscious decision to move.” Warwick has rebranded the center of the city as “city-center Warwick” and is working on creating new housing stock to lure people back. Avedisian also says, like Diossa, that the city is making an effort to draw students to the city after graduating by building housing with “more amenities.”

Projections show that the fight for young residents is a losing battle: by 2040, the share of Rhode Island’s population between the ages of 20 and 64, which now hovers around 65 percent of the population, is expected to drop to 54.2 percent, based on birth and death rates. Martin writes in her population projections that a shrinking share of population ages 20-64 may signal “increased strain on those younger people who are able to provide support to children and the elderly.” But the loss of youth is not universal within the state: nearly 20 percent of Providence’s population is in its 20s.

Providence will ride the national wave of young Americans moving back into urban areas and out of the suburbs to which their parents’ generation fled in the 1970s and '80s. Providence alone is projected to account for 72 percent of statewide population growth from now to 2040. The city is getting larger both absolutely and relative to the state and, with its special appeal to economically desirable young people, it can expect to grow its political and economic clout vis-à-vis the state. Maybe that’s why Providence’s mayor Angel Taveras was almost uniquely willing to talk about population statistics when applying for federal funds for a new streetcar. His administration’s project summary for the streetcar advertises that it will “attract 1,500 new city residents.”

Streetcar notwithstanding, most Rhode Island politicians from all parts of the state will continue avoiding direct confrontation with the issue—glancing at it sideways in the course of debates about job-creation, capital flight, airport expansions, and the annual "brain drain" created by local college graduates moving away.

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Most of the chairs at Maldonado’s fundraiser were empty, though depopulation was not the culprit. But as I watched a couple of people picking at that over-stocked buffet in that oversized room, I couldn’t help but feel like the handful of politicians and staffers in the room were all eyeing each other—seeing who would be the first to leave.