Merry Christmas, Rhode Island! We’re Not as Bad Off as Everyone Thinks We Are

My husband alerted me to a fabulous data analysis tool at The New York Times, which lets you view census data in color maps. The one that caught his eye, and then mine, was this one which shows the Change in Median Household income from 2000, which shows that all of Rhode Island has experienced an increase in median household income, with a 3% increase in Providence County, a 1% increase in Kent County, a 2% increase in Washington County, and a 6% increase in Bristol County. That’s right — in one of the worst economic times in our country, we are doing better than much of Massachusetts and Connecticut.

So there you go. And to add to the positive data on Rhode Island, Forbes Magazine reports that Cranston, RI is one of the most stable housing markets in the country. (h/t — had a great Christmas brunch there this morning!) Must be everyone jockeying for position to live near me~!

So breathe a deep sigh of relief this Christmas, Rhode Islanders. We are not on the verge of collapse, and if we could reform our energy policies so that biodiesel and alternative fuels could become our mainstays, we might even survive another few generations. All I can say is it’s more proof that you should ignore the nay-sayers, and never trust anyone who tries to tell you the rich need more tax breaks. Happy Holidays to all!


23 thoughts on “Merry Christmas, Rhode Island! We’re Not as Bad Off as Everyone Thinks We Are

  1. Thanks for the holiday cheer. My psychic powers tell me that I’ll be working a lot this year on exciting unpaid projects. But if I keep my two day jobs balanced I’ll do good and do well besides.
    Hope for a good year for everyone.

  2. “We are not on the verge of collapse, and if we could reform our energy policies so that biodiesel and alternative fuels could become our mainstays, we might even survive another few generations.”

    Kiersten, we are on the verge of collapse. The median income percentages are smoke and mirrors. Bristol County’s (just over the border) median income is $6.5K higher than Providence County, and Norfolk County is $30K higher. Why do we have 11.6% unemployment when Massachusetts has 8.2%? Unless you give away $75 mil in loan guarantees, no one wants to move a business here.

    Central Falls is bankrupt and Providence isn’t too far behind. Of course, Providence’s fiscal problems won’t truly rear its head until Cicilline takes his jet plane to Washington. And just like Central Falls, the rest of RI will have to pony up. Never mind the $300 mil deficit for the next state budget, and an even higher estimate for FY2013.

  3. “we are doing better than much of Massachusetts and Connecticut.”

    No. We’re not. Instead of looking at the ‘change in median income’, look at the actual median income… Providence County is a black hole. We’re earning $20,000 less per household than other comparable counties, by the look of it.

    Also, the ‘average’ incomes aren’t here, and those are important. Because ‘medians’ are just the dead-center of the data set, the actual income could drop dramatically, but the median could still move up.

    Let’s do a little thought experiment. I’m going to lay a few coins out on the table and list the ‘median’, then manipulate it.

    two quarters, three dimes, and six nickels.

    The median is 5. The average is 10. The total is $1.10.

    Now lets mix things up:

    one quarter, five dimes, and five nickels.

    The median is now 10! The average is down to $0.90, though, and the total is $1.

    The actual numbers are obviously much more complicated, and I haven’t fully digested what’s happening in RI yet, but a ‘rising median’ alone isn’t cause for celebration.

    What if the rising median was on account of young folks who aren’t established in their careers leaving?

  4. It’s true there are challenges, but it’s always been so for humans on earth. We live on a difficult planet! Thanks, Kiersten, for finding some hope amid the gloom. And while I’m at it, thanks to you & Nancy, too, for all you do all year round. Wishing you a happy 2011! — Mary

  5. Thanks for the astute reply, mangeek! There is a lot of skewing when you have an extremely small data sample, but that’s probably not the case with census data. It seems to me it’s still a valuable indicator of something, or why would they compile it? Any comment on why Cranston is rated one of the most stable housing markets?

    1. Driving around Cranston doing visits I notice it’s a very diverse city, including rich ‘burbs, working class ‘burbs, citified neighborhoods, immigrant enclaves and elderly enclaves. It sprawls, and if I didn’t have GPS I might still be lost somewhere in the Western rural part. Maybe Cranston was able to evade the housing specuators. I have friends who left Prov for Cranston’s lower taxes, just before Cranston’s fiscal problems started. Who knows?

  6. Oh, median income is totally important, but it’s not terribly informative unless accompanied by the other data.

    I would guess that Cranston is so stable is multifaceted…

    1. They have a high proportion of residents who work in skilled trades, or in government. This is anecdotal, I’ll bet it’s a factor.

    2. Cranston already pulled-off ‘austerity’ measures a few years ago, if I recall correctly. The city has shown that it can pull itself from disaster.

    3. It delivers a winning formula. It doesn’t try to be ‘low tax’. Instead, it focuses on delivering quality services from the government. I’m a believer that you can be ‘low tax/small government’ or ‘high tax/big government’, but if you choose the latter, you -have- to deliver the kind of government people want. Cranston does a good job, from what I hear. At least you can send your kids to school there and the streets are paved.

    4. They have several thousand ‘residents’ at the ACI, which I assume affects the budget in all sorts of ways. Does the ACI pay Cranston? Does Cranston get more aid/grants because they have a ‘higher population’, even though that population doesn’t consume any local services?

    5. They host plenty of other government facilities, too. Never underestimate the positive impact of having a prison, courts, and DMV hosted in your town.

    6. It’s much more of a monoculture than other cities. Cranston is more demographically consistent than other communities. I presume this makes it easier to govern, and easier to deliver services. I think this is a factor in why big govt/big taxes seem to work so well in northern Europe. It’s a lot easier to deliver government services in one language, to an audience with one set of cultural norms.

  7. Oh, and don’t forget that Cranston is -just- out of ‘convenience range’ for out-of-state shopping. When people in Cranston want to go shopping, I assume they shop in Cranston. When people in Providence or Pawtucket want to shop, they often hop the line to save a buck.

    And ninjanurse… Cranston might seem diverse, but look at these numbers from the last Census:

    “The racial makeup of the city was 89.19% White, 6.79% African American… 1.57% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 4.56% of the population.

    Over 30% of Cranston’s residents describe themselves as Italian American, one of the highest percentages of this ethnic group… in the United States.” -Wikipedia

  8. I was spending time off Cranston St. near Rt.10, but I was using the word ‘diverse’ to mean age and income as well as race and ethnicity.
    I hate shopping so much I usually go where I have to drive the least. Going to Mass. to save a few cents on sales tax would cost more in time than I can afford.

    1. It’ll probably take you less time to get to Seekonk than to Smithfield Commons or even garden City,and fuggedabout Providence Place.

      1. Providence Place gives me hives. And then there’s the parking garage. Westminster St. is where I’ll go today if I don’t have to work.
        I considered telling people that christmas music gives me seizures. It doesn’t, but if shopping season went on much longer it might. bah, humbug.

  9. Since I’m the one who pointed this site out to Kiersten, I feel obligated to weigh in on a couple of items in the comments.

    First, look at the map. Blue shading indicates a falling median; brown shading indicates a rising median.

    Virtually the entire country is blue. This is consistent with overall data put out by the Census Bureau each year. Median income typically falls during a recession and rises during the subsequent recovery. The economic recovery that occurred during the 00s was the first time since WWII that median income did not rise back to where it was (in 2001) before the next recession began (in 2008).

    However, RI is shaded brown. It is the only state in which all counties–the entire state–showed an increase in median.

    (Note: Bristol County RI shows a growth of 0. But the map has positive zeros and negative zeros. The numbers are rounded to whole numbers; so any increase of .1-.4% would be show positive growth, but would round down to 0. A decline of -.1 to -.4% would round up to 0. Both would show 0 change, but the first would be shaded brown, the second blue.)

    Some of the comments would seem to indicate that this is somehow a bad thing. How is this a bad thing?

    I’m not sure how this information can be called ‘smoke and mirrors.’ This is hard data, the sort of thing that a business would use to evaluate past performance and make decisions about the future.

    As for some of the comparisons, a couple of the comments have been a bit off-base. For example, comparing urbanized Providence County with suburban Bristol County Mass isn’t quite apples-to-apples. Providence County includes a fair number of poor areas that one simply does not find in Bristol County, Mass. As such, a difference of only $6.5k is pretty good. And, as far as that goes, the rest of the counties in RI have higher medians than Bristol County, Mass.

    The definition of median is the point where half the data values are above the median, and half is below. Most stats prefer the median to the mean (the “average”) because it’s harder to skew the median with a few outlier values.

    The classic example is if Bill Gates walks into a room of 20 people making $50k. The median income of those in the room would not change much, but the average income would be in the billions of dollars. If anything, mean income has been rising nationally because of the earnings of the super-rich at the top of the scale.

    The example cited with the nickels & dimes is a bit misleading. What changed from the first scenario (median = 5) to the second (median =10) is that there are fewer values in the bottom half (6 changed to 5) and more in the top half (5 to 6). Since half the values are above & half below, the median jumped to 10 because the top 5 values included the quarter while all the lower-half values were nickels.

    So the median moved up because the shape of the distribution has changed significantly. That’s what the median is designed to capture.

    However, 10 data points is easy to manipulate with a couple of changes. Too, the data points are discreet, with large jumps in between. You have values of x, 2x and 2.5x. This is very different from incomes, which fall along a continuum; they don’t double and double again with no interrim values. This may seem a minor complaint, but it does impact the overall result.

    As for racial composition, the vast majority of RI is more than 80% white. The only part of the state with significant minority populations is Providence. Some of this spills into Cranston. Cranston is not diverse in the larger sense, but it’s much more so than Warwick, or East Greenwich, or North Kingstown. Bristol County, Mass is 87% white; Providence county is 69% white.

    As a last note, I heard that South Carolina is facing a $1 billion deficit. It’s important to note that, for the past decade, SC has had a Republican governor and legistlature. And unions are much weaker there, and the tax burden is much lower there. By rights, according to what Republicans tell us, SC should be an economic powerhouse. Yet it ranks just behind RI in unemployment, plus it has a bigger deficit.

    I mention this because, if RI is in crisis, so are a lot of other states. And a lot of these other states do not have the same problem set as RI or governmental circumstances. To me this indicates that the reason states are facing problems is not entirely due to what is happening in the state. Rather, it’s a situation that affects the entire country. The thing the map shows is that, in some ways, RI is doing rather better than a lot of other states.

    That’s good news. Merry Christmas!

    1. RI is doing very well in one sector:unionized public employees,which offsets the widespread unemployment in manufacturing.
      The incomes of public employees in RI combined with benefits packages and defined benefits retirement systems exceeds most other states.
      This is one sector of our state economy that isn’t affected by the nationwide recession the way private sector jobs are.
      Woonsocket,Pawtucket,and Central Falls,East Providence,and Newport all have significant minority populations.
      I recall from a statistics course I took decades ago that it is posssible
      to “prove” almost any point you care to make using stats.My wife spent a number of years working in that field,and has the same attitude.
      All I know is that after living here for almost 30 years(27)I have seen a very sharp downward turn in many areas.I live in Providence and never have I seen so many closed businesses and abandoned residential properties.
      You like to complain about the super rich-I can take the opposite view and point to the public sector unions and their refusal to compromise on COLA’s,pensions,etc.They have forgotten what their function-to protect the rights of public employees against unfair management practices.
      I spent many years as a public sector union member at both state and Federal levels so I know whereof I speak.
      This is my second year without a COLA on my pension,Social Security,and VA disability benefits.I understand why the government has to do this,but I really don’t see grocery,energy,or gasoline costs declining(much the opposite) so I have to wonder how they determined that the CPI hasn’t moved upward.
      Oh yeah,health insurance rates haved increased too.

      1. Observer, the CPI doesn’t take some things into account. I don’t believe that health insurance or fuel are factored-in. Housing is, and while groceries make up a few percent of most people’s spending, housing makes up almost a third.

        I don’t know if you noticed, but houses in a lot of communities are costing 30-40% less than they were at the peak. Rental costs seem to have dropped, too.

        So yeah, even if groceries doubled, housing only has to drop just a bit to totally make up for it in the CPI.

        The CPI isn’t really the best indicator out there, but it is what it is.

        As for the ‘median’ rising. I’m pretty sure it’s not as good news as we think. There are -lots- of young people who can’t get a foothold here and leave for greener pastures. When they go, the established middle-class ($35-80K) folks stick around. I predict that we will see a rapid ‘graying’ of Rhode Island in the next census.

  10. Christmas music can be really nice or atrocious,it depends.
    mariah Carey is great with Christmas music,but stuff like Dominick the Donkey,Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,The Little Drummer Boy,and Santa baby make me retch.
    The whole Solstice/Yule thing is my favorite aspect of the Christmas season,because I don’t have a defined religion.

  11. Thanks for the interesting thoughts. This is one of those questions I hope some professional analysts can look at and add more insights on. Maybe it would be a good question to pose to the incoming governor’s office.

    1. Well,when I bought the house the interest rate was 13.5% and the people who owned it had inherited the place,so they weren’t trying to get every last penny out of it.I later refinanced way,way down and recently paid it off.It was only $60,000 to begin with.

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