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.

It goes without saying that Massachusetts has the lowest percentage of uninsured residents—5 percent (Thanks Mitt! Mitt? You there, Mitt?), compared to 16 percent nationally, and a whopping 25 percent in Texas. On life expectancy, Massachusetts ties for sixth-highest, about five years longer than the worst-performing states. In another political universe far, far away, you might describe a place like this as pro-life.

A few other metrics of social well-being: The Bay State has the second-lowest teen birth rate, the fourth-lowest suicide rate, and the lowest traffic fatality rate. The birthplace of Dunkin’ Donuts has the sixth-lowest obesity rate. And depending on the source, the first state to legalize gay marriage has either the lowest or one of the very lowest divorce rates in the country.

Finally, let’s take a purely dollars-and-cents look at Massachusetts. No matter where you start on the political spectrum, this is the most important question, because many Americans believe we must choose between social investments and a competitive economy. So what economic sacrifices is Massachusetts making to achieve such extraordinary educational and social outcomes?

None, apparently. Massachusetts has the second-highest per capita personal income among the states. Unemployment in March was 6.5 percent, well below the national 8.2 percent. Its state per-capita GDP ranks sixth-highest. Its median household income (a measure of widely-distributed income) is fifth.

Massachusetts is looking particularly sharp when it comes to the globalized, tech-driven economy on which America’s superpower standing hinges. According to a 2011 report, Massachusetts has the highest per-capita venture capital, patents, and technology licensing of 10 leading high-tech states. Worker productivity in Massachusetts (GDP per employed person) is the third-highest in the world. And research and development spending as a share of GDP in Massachusetts is higher than any country anywhere.

Massachusetts is as green as it is high-tech, and recently displaced California as the nation’s most energy-efficient state. No surprise, then, that the Kauffman Foundation put Massachusetts at the top of its New Economy Index. More surprising, perhaps, is CNBC’s index of America’s top states for business. This is a calculus so ruthlessly focused on corporate competitiveness that it marked states down for high union membership. Massachusetts came in sixth. Not bad for the People’s Republic.

All this isn’t to suggest that the Bay State doesn’t have problems. While the state is among the lowest for property crime, it ranks considerably worse on violent crime. On a recent corruption index, it ranked 13th—nice, but not A-list. Its unemployment figure handily beats the national number, but 14 states do better. And, what you’ve all been wondering about: Massachusetts has high taxes, though perhaps not as lofty as reputed. It ranks 11th-highest (and at 10 percent, only barely above the national average of 9.8 percent).

It’s also worth noting that there are many ways to cut the statistical cake. Massachusetts’ second-lowest teen birth rate, for example, may reflect a higher abortion rate (though one that’s still below the national figure). The low traffic deaths may be due to the molasses-like flow of traffic on the state’s notorious roadways. And the marvelously low divorce rate is paired with a below-average marriage rate.

The most compelling retort, though, is that Massachusetts is simply a rich state, so of course it has good schools and health care. To address this, I contacted Kristen Lewis, co-director of Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council. Their American Human Development Index weaves health, education, and income metrics into a quick summary of a state’s well-being. Connecticut ranks first and Massachusetts second. (Anyone interested in exploring the state of their state will love these beautiful interactive maps.)

So, what of the charge that good outcomes result from high incomes? Lewis says “you might turn the question on its head” and ask, instead, why is Massachusetts so rich? “Massachusetts and others at top of the index tend to make significant public and private investments in the ingredients of well-being,” explains Lewis. Ultimately, these investments pay off both socially and economically. She points out that Maryland is third on Measure of America’s income index, but 33rd in life expectancy. Virginia comes in 6th on income (right behind Massachusetts), but 11th on education, and 25th on health.

So high income is no guarantee of good social outcomes and strong investments in people clearly haven’t punished one of our wealthiest and most globally competitive state economies. In fact, if America wants to be a healthy, smart, rich, globalized, high-tech powerhouse, we arguably have no better model than Massachusetts.

For many, a steady drizzle of mockery for the state and its “moderates” is the only response to that uncomfortable truth. Still, it’s hard not to dream of a presidential campaign in which a former governor would run on, not from, his associations with Massachusetts. Dukakis, of course, ran on a “Massachusetts Miracle.” But Gov. Romney is already too far from home for that, and probably knows better than to try.

Mark Vanhoenacker is a writer in New York. Follow him on Twitter.

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