Data Inspires Equity-Focused State Policy in Rhode Island

21 Oct 2014 | J. Mijin Cha and Alex Kowalski
Data Inspires Equity-Focused State Policy in Rhode Island
Above: Governor Chafee's office

When done right, data can be more than a collection of numbers and statistics: it can uncover a reality that may not be immediately apparent to advocates or decision makers. In Rhode Island, new data on the state's changing demographics sparked policy changes to leverage its increasing diversity as an asset.

In 2013, PolicyLink and PERE worked with local partners to produce an Equity Profile of Rhode Island. The profile revealed a growing racial generation gap between the white senior population and the increasingly diverse youth population. Thirty-six percent of Rhode Islanders under the age of 18 were people of color in 2010, compared with 9 percent of those over age 64. This demographic divergence between young and old presents a challenge to securing adequate public funding for educational systems and community infrastructure.

The profile also showed that people of color fare worse in the state's labor market even when they have the same levels of education as their white counterparts. Unemployment rates for college graduates were, for example, 3.5 percentage points higher and wages about $6.50 per hour lower for Rhode Island's people of color than for its whites.

By painting a more complete picture of how the state's population is changing and the extent to which communities of color can participate in the state's economy, the profile lent critical facts to policy discussions. Amanda Martin, a planner for the state who worked with PolicyLink and PERE to produce the Equity Profile, said the data have fostered new discussions about her state's demographics.

And the data did more than change discussions. Shortly after the Equity Profile was released, Governor Lincoln D. Chafee issued an executive order to increase diversity among government employees and contractors. The order led to the creation of the state's Office of Diversity, Equity, and Opportunity, which will be opened in 2015 with a $1.1 million budget and a goal of ensuring fair-hiring and inclusion in all aspects of government.

Governor Chafee cited figures from the profile documenting how, in the past three decades, people of color had grown from 7 percent to 24 percent of Rhode Island's population, and that by the year 2040 Rhode Island was projected to be 41 percent people of color. These statistics undergirded the governor's proactive steps to ensure that Rhode Island's workforce and state government accurately reflected the state's changing demographics. Currently, the state employs 15,000 workers, but only 15 percent of them are people of color.

The Governor also highlighted the state's changing demographics during his State of the State and Budget Address, urging lawmakers to allocate more funding toward education. "This is the future of Rhode Island," he said in the January 2014 speech. "And the best way to prepare for it and translate it into prosperity is to ensure that all Rhode Islanders have access to quality public education. We cannot afford to have disparity in Rhode Island where there are areas of opportunity and others where poverty and lack of education self-perpetuate and hold back our economy as a whole."

Relevant data about changing demographics and the extent to which diverse groups can participate in economic life can lead to the process and policy changes necessary to work toward equity. "This has opened up a new focus on equity issues for our department, helped us to develop a new vocabulary, and given us information we need to incorporate equity into our work," Martin said.

Going forward Martin said she believes the data will continue to shape the public discussion about the equity imperative and contribute to a deeper understanding of where the state stands and how to plan for a prosperous future. Far from contributing to data overload, the equity profile is helping to build a more equitable Ocean State economy.