Why Massachusetts is the Best State in the Union

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 14 2012 6:00 AM

Don’t Mess with Massachusetts

It may be everyone’s punching bag, but it’s time to face facts: The Bay State is best.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Massachusetts, in today’s political culture, is more epithet than state. The People’s Republic, Taxachusetts, “Sweden”—this is America’s arugula-munching, maple syrup-swigging, receding-ponytail hippy uncle, exiled to its cold, lonely corner of American geography by Sunbelt population growth and a rightward-leaning national discourse. That “Spirit of America” license plate doth protest too much. For much of the country, Massachusetts, if not actually un-American, is the suspicious redoubt of the American left.  

As a native, I’m willing to take it on the chin for the state’s crimes against the republic:  certain unfortunate regional accents, the term wicked, and that image of Michael Dukakis in a tank . For the state’s affection for happy-clappy bumper stickers (“no one is free when others are oppressed”) and the drivers my brother calls “Massholes”—I apologize.

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Still, all the Bay State-baiting can get depressing. Especially in the recent primary season, as Mitt Romney, pummeled by charges of “Massachusetts moderate,” has run far from the state he once governed. Et tu, Mitt?

On the brighter side, though, Gov. Romney’s candidacy is an opportunity to take a closer look at the state that dare not speak its name. Through all the red mist and flying blue fur this election year, it’s worth reminding voters of a truth Romney probably won’t be emphasizing: The nation’s favorite punching bag is an exceptionally successful state.

Let’s compare Massachusetts to its peers on three basic measures of success: education, social well-being, and economic strength. Some Americans believe good results on these metrics are the goals of responsible government, and others believe they’re the happy consequences of free markets. But however we get there, these are desirable outcomes for all Americans.

First up is education, the foundation of America’s meritocratic values and the key to whatever success the country will find in a globalized, knowledge-based economy. Massachusetts is renowned for its higher-education institutions. Less well known, though, is that the home of the original Tea Party also has the best schools in the country. On the most basic measures of educational achievement—fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading skills—Massachusetts tops the nation.

Education Week’s Quality Counts 2012 report expands on this success. On their overall index, Massachusetts ranks second, to Maryland. But on two of the index’s most important measures of results—a lifetime educational Chance for Success index, and a K-12 Achievement index that bundles metrics such as test results, year-on-year improvement, and the gap between poor and wealthier kids (perhaps the truest test of our fabled meritocracy)—the Bay State again leads the nation.

And most of the world. According to a 2011 Harvard study, while reading proficiency in Mississippi is comparable to Russia or Bulgaria, Massachusetts performs more like Singapore, Japan, or South Korea. Often better: Massachusetts students rank fifth in the world in reading, lapping Singapore and Japan, and needless to say, every state in the union. In math, Massachusetts slots in a global ninth, ahead of Japan and Germany. (Some international educational studies rank Shanghai and Hong Kong as separate countries; if this wasn’t done, Massachusetts would likely rank two places higher.)

What about social well-being? Above all, we want kids to have a healthy start in life. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Massachusetts has the nation’s highest level of first-trimester prenatal care, and the third-lowest infant mortality rate (Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Missouri are about 50 percent higher). It also has the second-highest rate of child access to both medical and dental care, the nation’s lowest child mortality rate, and the lowest teen death rate.