Discover the Top 4 Fastest-Shrinking Counties in Rhode Island
Rhode Island is the smallest U.S. state, with a population of 1.09 million residents. This East Coast state is not a true island, but it does have deep ties to the water. Rhode Island — nicknamed the Ocean State — is renowned for its sailing culture and is even considered the sailing capital of the world! It is also known for its Gilded Age mansions, picturesque beaches, and charming colonial towns. However, in recent years, Rhode Island’s resident population has steadily declined. Data from a 2022 survey indicated that 34% of its residents chose to, or were planning to, leave the state. With a population decrease of 39,156 in 2022 alone, many people are beginning to wonder why. Read on to discover the top four fastest-shrinking counties in Rhode Island. Along the way, we will uncover the main factors driving this major evacuation out of the state.
#4: Providence County — 0.3% Population Decrease
Providence County, established in 1703, is the largest of the five Rhode Island counties. It has an economy based on healthcare, tourism, and jewelry-making. The county is also the poorest in the state, with a median household income of $19,255. Between 2020 and 2021, this area saw the largest population decline in its history, with a decrease of 0.3%. This translates to an estimated 1,358 residents that left the state during that time.
The city within this county that is facing the fastest-shrinking population is Central Falls. Located in northeastern Rhode Island, it has one of the highest violent crime rates in the state and the country. It has also faced many economic challenges, including an exceptionally high poverty rate. It manufactures glass products, textiles, and clothing. With that being said, the city has limited job opportunities and below-average salaries. These are all factors contributing to why many of its residents struggle financially. With a population of 22,583 residents, just over 24.9% of its residents live below the poverty line. This is a shocking number considering the national average is just 12.6%.
Woonsocket is another city within Providence County that has witnessed the most serious decline over the years. Again, economic factors are the most prominent problem. With residents witnessing the negative effects of the declining manufacturing industry, many are choosing to abandon the state to seek more favorable job endeavors. Overall, this poor quality of life presented to its residents is the primary reason behind so many of them choosing to leave Providence County.
#3: Washington County — 0.4% Population Decrease
Washington County is the third fastest-shrinking county in Rhode Island. This county prides itself on its beautiful beaches, wildlife preserves, and colonial architecture. It is named after George Washington, our nation’s first president. Nicknamed South County, it is home to Block Island, Narragansett Beach, and Abrams Animal Farm. While tourism plays a major role in the area’s economy, this county has been struggling to keep its residents. Between 2020 and 2021 alone, an estimated 550 people vacated the area.
Lack of Job Opportunities
Research suggests one of the biggest reasons for this migration is due to the limited employment opportunities — particularly those outside of the tourism industry. Besides this, Washington County has a particularly high cost of living, with an affordability index of 74. The median sale price of a home is $580,000, which is down 3.5% from last year. Shockingly, that is still $107,000 over the national average. Additionally, the total cost of food, childcare, transportation, healthcare, taxes, and other necessities are 24.3% higher than the U.S. average. This makes it one of the most expensive places to live in the state.
Washington County also has some of the worst transportation options in the state. An average commute to work is around 30 minutes. An estimated 7.4% of the population commute over an hour each way to get to work every day. Along with that, about 28% of residents work outside of their county. These residents claim the reason for that is predominately due to the minimal job opportunities within their county.
Furthermore, the public transportation system in Washington County is heavily criticized for being outdated and of low quality. The endless traffic congestion is another reason why commuting is so hard in this county. Most places are not walkable, even though the county is fairly small. Residents also suggest there is no place to park their personal vehicles either. Many people living in the area claim it was not optimized to accommodate commuters. This fact is another major reason why so many of its residents are leaving.
#2: Bristol County — Population Decrease of 1.2%
Bristol County, formed in 1746, is a picturesque place. Situated on the Narragansett Bay peninsula, it is famous for its rich nautical history. Over the years, the county’s population has declined, with a 2.94% decrease observed over a 10-year period. What is even more concerning is that in just the past year alone, the county lost 440 residents, according to data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau. Despite having a current population of 50,818 residents, Bristol County’s declining population has become a cause for concern among its residents. Renowned for its small-town feel and idyllic seaside charm, residents have started to realize that the county lacks some very important qualities necessary for growth and development. The many reasons for this are as follows.
Pricey Living Expenses
The main industries Bristol caters to are ship, textile, and luggage manufacturing. Since these are all declining markets, the job opportunities available in the area are extremely scarce. Not to mention the towns making up this county — Bristol, Warren, and Barrington — all have a very high cost of living. Bristol County’s median home was 1,980 square feet, listed at $303 per square foot. This rate is up 8.2% from September 2022. Compared to the national median price per square foot for an economy home, Bristol County’s rates are $81 higher and still rising!
Plus, property taxes are also high in this area, with rates of 1.63%. The residential and commercial tax rate is set at $13.00 per thousand of the assessed property value. This lands Bristol County in the eighth spot for the highest property taxes in the United States. Coupled with its lack of jobs, many Bristol County residents are choosing to relocate to more affordable states where they can get a bigger bang for their buck.
#1: Newport County — Population Decrease of 1.9%
Newport County takes the number one spot for the fastest-shrinking county in Rhode Island. It is made up of six towns, including Portsmouth, Newport, Jamestown, Little Compton, Middletown, and Tiverton. Founded in 1703, this county was acquired from Massachusetts and is renowned for its historic Newport Mansions, scenic coastline, and rich tourism industry. Known as “America’s First Resort”, this county’s desirable attractions and lively culture seem to not be enough to keep its residents living there anymore. Between 2020 and 2021, an estimated 1,181 residents left the state. In April 2020, the population was 85,652. By July 2022, the population totaled 84,481. COVID-19 had a great impact on this relocation. Besides that, negative economic factors have caused residents to leave. This includes the decline of the county’s manufacturing industries as well as its limited job opportunities.
High Cost of Living
Newport County has a particularly high cost of living as well, and with limited affordable housing options and high taxes, these factors contribute to why some of its residents are moving away. A recent study conducted by the Tax Policy Center — a nonpartisan pro-growth association working within Rhode Island — determined the state’s business tax climate to be one of the worst in the nation. This, along with its overall bad business climate, are two more prominent reasons behind Rhode Island’s population decline. Jamestown, the richest community in the state, houses many upper-middle-class to upper-class residents. Due to the economic disadvantages faced there, many of these people are opting to move to more conservative states like Florida.
Excessive Violent Crime
With that being said, other studies help shine a light on the broader range of issues Rhode Island’s Newport County is struggling with. One of these areas is the excessive violent crime occurring there. Newport County has a crime rate higher than 92% of the rest of the state’s cities and towns, with the most common offenses including robbery, motor vehicle theft, arson, larceny, and burglary. Moreover, the annual crime rate determined for this postcode area is 43.6 crimes per 1,000 people. To compare, the U.S. national average is a mere 5.6 crimes per 1,000 people.
Making up an average of 39.2% of all crimes reported in this area, violent crime is the most common in Newport. This refers to offenses that involve force or the threat of force, such as murder, robbery, aggravated assault, sexual assault, and extortion. Robbery is the most common violent offense, with Newport County having the highest robbery rate of any other county in Rhode Island. Data compiled by Gwent Police shows that the Stow Hill ward, which includes Newport’s downtown, had the highest number of crimes reported. Following that were Lliswerry and Pillgwenlly. Due to the increasing safety concerns in the county, this is likely a driving factor causing Newport’s residents to seek out other places to live.
The most popular destination for people leaving the Ocean State was Massachusetts, with an estimated 11,290 residents opting to move to the bordering state in the past year. Connecticut was the second most popular destination, taking in 3,977 new residents from Rhode Island. Other places that people from the state are moving to include California (2,839 residents), Florida (2,685 residents), New York (1,623 residents), the Carolinas (2,524 residents), Virginia (1,098 residents), and New Hampshire (1,022 residents). The state’s upper-middle to upper-class residents left these fast-shrinking counties to seek out better tax opportunities. Others relocated to acquire better jobs or higher wages. Many young adults or recent college graduates left for places that offered more modern cities with greater convenience, recreational activities, and entertainment.
In this article, we identified the top four fastest-shrinking counties in Rhode Island. We also explored the various factors causing the state’s residents to leave. Now, it is clear Rhode Island’s declining population is primarily caused by its economic decline, limited job opportunities, and inadequate infrastructure. Instead, the residents are vacating the state to seek better opportunities and a higher quality of life. A resident of Providence County told A-Z Animals, “Rhode Island has so much potential, but it is in desperate need of some real attention from someone who can actually turn the place around.” With the state’s residents backing up what the data is indicating, it seems Rhode Island’s population will continue to decline until crucial steps are taken to improve it.
Summary of the Top 4 Fastest-Shrinking Counties in Rhode Island
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