Politics & Government

Rhode Island's jobless tell different story about 'recovery'

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — For the frustrated folks who troop into the unemployment office in this fading industrial city every day to peruse the same paltry job offerings or tweak their resumes for the hundredth time, the trickle of positive economic data coming out of Washington is cold comfort.

"All they got is figures. This is up 10 percent, that is up 2 percent," said Cynthia Roderick, 57, an unemployed hospital clerk who, like many in this solidly Democratic state, voted for President Barack Obama but now criticize his response to the jobs crisis.

"Let Obama come down here and see the real deal," said Roderick, who's been looking for work for four months. "Let him see what people are going through."

The nationwide jobless rate declined and retail sales rose last month, leading some experts to suggest that the economy is starting a slow recovery, but not even vague optimism is apparent in hard-hit states such as Rhode Island.

It's hardly surprising that jobless Americans are discouraged, but the gulf between reports and reality is sapping confidence in Washington's economic prescriptions.

The latest White House-backed plan is a Senate bill aimed at helping small businesses grow, but some watchdog groups have said it won't create many jobs. Tax write-offs for small entrepreneurs, one of the bill's provisions, aren't the kind of bold initiatives that Rhode Islanders think are needed to jump-start the Ocean State's moribund economy.

America's smallest state is experiencing outsize economic problems.

Rhode Island's unemployment rate, 12.9 percent in the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, is the third highest in the country due to the steady erosion of its manufacturing industries, which account for one in eight jobs, and a wave of layoffs and mergers in the health care sector. Only Nevada, at 13 percent, and Michigan, at 14.6 percent, are in worse shape.

If you count part-time workers who'd rather be working full-time, as well as people who've given up looking for jobs, however, Rhode Island's "real" unemployment rate is 18.3 percent, according to U.S. government data.

"President Obama wants to talk about small businesses — what, like a restaurant? What is that going to create?" Roderick said. "How many jobs? They need a strong (economic) foundation like they had years and years ago, and I don't really think they're going to get it back."

Pawtucket, a town of about 72,000 people along the Blackstone River, has seen better days. It was the site of one of the nation's first water-powered cotton mills, built in 1793 by British emigre Samuel Slater and credited with helping to launch the industrial revolution in America.

The prim, pale-yellow Slater Mill is now a national historic site, but the town around it is drab and decaying. The city's unemployment rate is 14 percent, according to the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, and its problems mirror the state's, where employment began declining in January 2007, nearly a year before it did in the rest of the country.

"Rhode Island really got into this mess before most other states," said Leonard Lardaro, an economics professor at the University of Rhode Island. "The state doesn't have enough of a presence in growth- and tech-oriented industries, which really helped some of the other states to have some margin for error."

In 2007, after she was laid off from her job as an accounts receivable clerk at the hospital where she'd worked for 16 years, Roderick hit a rough patch. She was forced to withdraw $30,000 from her 401(k) retirement savings account, plus the penalty for early withdrawal, to pay her bills for a year.

A widow with grown children, she briefly found work at a psychiatric hospital across in nearby South Attleboro, Mass., but she lost that job four months ago. To get her foot in the door at another hospital, she's been volunteering, without pay, for 20 hours a week, hoping that a job will open up.

She's pawned her gold bracelets and a treasured ring. She traded her reliable car in for a cheap clunker, and she sold her diamond earrings for gas money.

"I'm not living like I used to live. I don't know where things are getting better," Roderick said. "And I don't see it. I don't care what anybody says."

She and other job-seekers in Pawtucket described an exasperating hunt for jobs that don't seem to exist anymore: hospital workers, heavy machine operators, back-office clerks for the near-dead costume jewelry industry, which once employed thousands of people in and around the nearby state capital, Providence.

"When I was a youngster, I could quit my job at one jewelry store, walk down the street and in the next hour get hired by someone else," said Catherine Rini, 56, of Pawtucket. "Now you can't. A lot of our industries are vanishing."

Rini was laid off in June from a jewelry company for the second time during this recession. She's found a smattering of job openings across the bay in Newport, but she can't afford the $4 toll to cross the Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge every day, so she's restricted her search.

As she searches fruitlessly — "There are like 80 applicants for every one job," she said — Rini is three months behind on her mortgage and she has no health insurance.

She had sharp criticism for Republicans and Democrats, in Washington as well as in Providence, for "mismanaging" the economic crisis, noting that last year Pawtucket used some $550,000 in federal stimulus money to build a skateboard park.

"That didn't create long-lasting jobs," Rini said. "I just wish all the politicians would work together for now, considering all the problems we have."

(This article is part of an occasional series on the impacts of the recession.)


January unemployment report


No one complains about bank bonuses in Greenwich, Conn.

Senate unveils bill to boost jobs, but who does it help?

Will health savings go to reduce deficit rather than expand coverage?

Social Security surplus hit by joblessness, early retirement

Related stories from McClatchy DC