WOONSOCKET, Rhode Island — Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Gina Raimondo on Thursday proposed creating a special office to "reimagine" the way Rhode Island state government addresses problems such as poverty, homelessness and access to higher education.
The general treasurer said she would create an Office of Economic Empowerment if elected. It would work with government agencies, communities and nonprofits on social service and other programs, emphasizing efficiency and results.
"This office is going to be relentlessly focused on outcomes," she said at an event at a social service provider in Woonsocket, where nearly a quarter of residents live below the poverty level. "We're going to fund what works."
She said government has an important role to play in providing a social safety net. Too many Rhode Islanders are living paycheck to paycheck, she said, citing a statistic that nearly 40 percent don't have enough saved to cover three months of basic expenses if they lost their jobs.
Rhode Island has the nation's highest unemployment rate, 8.2 percent.
"We need a government that's socially conscious, forward-looking and fiscally responsible, all at the same time," she said. "The challenges are great — I know that. But the opportunity is great too. Everybody deserves a chance."
Raimondo's main challengers in the Sept. 9 primary are Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and former Obama administration official Clay Pell. Neither Taveras nor Pell has proposed such an economic empowerment office but both emphasize the need for greater economic opportunities, including through investments in education and workforce development.
Raimondo said the new office would work on issues such as homelessness and affordable housing, improving the graduation rate at the community college system and financial literacy. It would not be another state agency. Instead, it would be an initiative within the governor's office that stitches together services delivered by a variety of agencies and groups, often in inefficient ways, she said.
The office would also serve as what Raimondo called a clearinghouse for innovation initiatives, like so-called social impact bonds, an approach that uses private investment to finance public social programs. Under the "pay for success" model, funding is tied to specific performance targets.
"Rhode Island is poised to be a leader and a laboratory for change-makers," she said.
The treasurer did not provide a cost for the new office but said that, over time, it should pay for itself by savings it produces.