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Is economic storm calming in the Ocean State?

Mark Mardell | 23:03 UK time, Thursday, 26 August 2010

Providence, Rhode Island

homes_cropped.jpgAt the back of number eight Osbourne Street in Providence, Rhode Island lies a jumble of junk, an old bath, a battered gas heater and a pile of pipes.

The windows are either empty or boarded up.

Once a home to several families it has been repossessed, and it is scarcely the only house on the street in such a state.

But this is a positive story.

Number eight, number 10, five and three have all been bought up by Rhode Island Housing, a self-funded body set up by the state.

These homes are being gutted so they can be done up and rented out at an affordable rate.

RIH's deputy director Susan Bodington tells me they've been able to make a real difference in the area, along with providing much needed jobs in the construction industry.

Osbourne Street is in the heart of Smith Hill, a solid working class area that has been home to successive waves of Irish, Jewish, Italian and now Hispanic immigrants.

It's just a few streets, but it has been hit hard with around 60 homes being repossessed here.

Rhode Island is not only America's smallest state but was one of the first hit by the recession.

It used to ride out downturns better than the rest of the country, but not this time.

Unemployment was way above the national average (9.6%) at 12.3%. Although it has been falling since March, it is still at 11.9%.

Susan Bodington says she is optimistic that the economy is getting slightly better.

Foreclosures are down a bit although the housing market itself isn't showing any signs of improvement.

And the real underlying problem is that jobs are still very hard to find.

Wendy Macari would agree.

She has been out of work for five months and as a temp, she felt things were pretty bumpy before that.

She felt like she was firing job applications into space because she was not receiving replies.

wendy_cropped.jpgBringing up four children on her own, it's been a hard summer.

She says she couldn't even afford petrol to drive to the beach, and items like shampoo became a luxury for her.

But today she can hardly contain her excitement and says she feels like doing a dance.

She's starting work on Monday largely due to a government-funded scheme that pays the wages of new employees in small business for a limited period.

The scheme has only been running since June, and it has found work for 550 people. But the money runs out in September.

Wendy's new job is with Lighthouse Financial Services.

The boss, Debbie Bettencourt, takes the symbol of their slogan "a guiding light to financial freedom" seriously.

She is wearing a lighthouse broach and a lighthouse necklace. There are also lighthouses on the curtains and lighthouse ornaments everywhere.

The company provides book keeping services for small and medium sized companies.

And Debbie is enthusiastic about the government-funded, state-run programme, which has allowed her to take on two more workers and pay for them while they train.

Looking over the books of lots of companies, she's in a good place to judge how the economy is doing, and she is emphatic that very slowly companies are taking on more workers.

While economists and politicians talk of double dips and make gloomy prognostications, people in the Ocean State feel things are getting a bit better, and in part, that the stimulus money is helping.

When I remark on this dichotomy one Rhode Island resident says sweetly, "Is this your first election year in this county?"

They have a point.


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