The Rhode Island business and conservative community loves to assert that the Ocean State is too generous to poor and low-income workers. The claim is that the state’s social safety net of programs attracts those who don’t pull their weight to settle in the state and become a burden on taxpayers.

This trope makes for endless talk show piffle and campaign rhetoric. But it isn’t true. As John Adams said famously, facts are stubborn things. What they show is that in major policies that help the poor, and particularly the working poor, Rhode Island is well behind its New England neighbors.

Where to start? The minimum wage is a good place. That’s what low-skill workers in retail, fast-food industries and some small businesses are often paid. Massachusetts has begun a march to a $15 an hour floor wage that kicks in in 2023. That’s more than twice as much as the federal minimum wage, which has remained at $7.25 an hour for a decade.

The Massachusetts minimum wage is now $12.75 an hour, which leads the way in New England. Maine isn’t far behind, at $12 per hour. Vermont and Connecticuts are at about $11.

Trailing behind is Rhode Island at $10.50 an hour, more than two dollars behind neighboring Massachusetts.New Hampshire is the last state in the region stuck at the federal rate. The New Hampshire legislature approved a minimum wage hike, but it was vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu.

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center reported recently that the increase to $12.75 an hour will jump wages for 45 percent of food service workers and 25 percent of retail workers. The same report showed that nearly 60 percent of those eligible for a raise are women –and 40 percent are people of color.

In Rhode Island, organized labor made a push last year to raise the minimum wage. It was approved in the Senate, but was killed by House Speaker Nick Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat. Mattiello said he listened to business interests. 

“It’s absolutely shameful and a disgrace that we’re about $90 a week behind Massachusetts for a 40 hour week,’says George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO. Nee says unions plan to be more aggressive this session. They will start by pushing a bill to increase the floor wage to $11.25 an hour in July, with a further increase to $12 in 2021.

Then there is a measure that would directly help the working poor --increasing Earned Income Tax Credit that reduces state income taxes for the working poor. Every state in the region that taxes income does better by its low-income workers than Rhode Island, except for Maine. Even worse is the cash benefit for families on what used to be called welfare and is now known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). A family of three, usually a single mother and two children, is eligible for just $544 a month, which is lower than every other New England state. New Hampshire has the highest TANF at more than a $1,000 monthly. Rhode Island’s TANF payment has been the same for thirty years.

All this is happening in an era when big business is basking in huge breaks in federal taxes and state taxes are being handed out to business in the form of incentives and so-called economic development grants. 

Isn’t it about time the General Assembly gives a hand up to the least among us?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 in the afternoon.