In his annual address to the Commonwealth, Governor Charlie Baker outlined the state’s successes and areas for improvement while making it clear: Massachusetts aims to be a leader.
Baker stressed the ways that bipartisan cooperation has allowed the state to come up with timely solutions to problems in areas such as helping seniors with prescription drug costs and spreading high-speed Internet access to all areas of the state.
He also laid out strategic challenges for state in the coming year, such as more progress on climate change and improving transportation and affordable housing. He also spoke of working with the state Legislature to pass the needed bills.
It hardly sounds possible in this era of divided government.
As a nation, America is trapped in a highly partisan political system that has fostered sharp divisions and relentless policy gridlock with serious and lasting consequences. Our federal government has failed to deliver practical, consensus-based solutions to virtually any of our most pressing societal challenges: public education, affordable and accessible health care, discrimination, ineffective and divisive immigration policies, gun violence, and more. The burden has been largely left to the states.
Even with a thriving economy, many Americans are not reaping the benefits. To create true economic opportunity for all and restore the American Dream, we cannot focus solely on economics. We must also advance social conditions and quality of life to reduce inequality and equip everyone to reach their full potential. Unlike economic data that is carefully tracked and reported, however, there has been no systematic way to objectively measure quality of life and social outcomes at the federal or state level.
In 2014, I led a team that developed the Social Progress Index, the first ever comprehensive, objective framework to benchmark countries and regions based on social, environmental, and quality of life indicators. SPI focuses on outcomes, not on spending or effort. And economic indicators are measured separately to understand how social progress affects economic progress, and vice versa.
The Social Progress Index was first applied to countries, which revealed that the United States registers many areas of weakness. In fact, we are the only major country in which social progress is actually declining; the United States has fallen to near the bottom of the ranking of the world’s 36 most advanced countries.
Given our weaknesses as a nation, it is also important to apply the social progress framework to US states. We found state performance to be highly variable, not surprising since our federal system has long delegated many governmental functions to the states, which differ greatly in governmental structure, political culture, and norms. Many, if not most, states suffer from the same bitter partisanship, divided government, and gridlock we see at the federal level.
Massachusetts is the clear leader among all states on social progress. The Commonwealth has been a pioneer and a leader in advancing crucial areas such as the quality of public education, health care coverage for all, same-sex marriage, and many others. (Note also that New England as a whole outperforms all other regions, with all six New England states in the top ten nationally.)
How have residents and our political system in Massachusetts been able to achieve far more social progress in recent decades than most states, and America overall? To understand this, we draw on recent research on the root causes of the political dysfunction and gridlock in America over recent decades. These can be boiled down to the bitter partisan competition between the two major political parties, who divide voters based on ideology rather than working collaboratively to find common ground and solve problems. The parties have collaborated to set rules and practices in our political system that erect major barriers to new political competition.
Massachusetts’s ability to overcome dysfunctional politics compared to Washington, and many other states, reflects the Commonwealth’s residents and its legacy, but also reflects deliberate choices about how our state government is structured as well as the practices of governors, the Legislature, and public institutions. The state enjoys a well-educated citizenry, most of whom are not strongly ideological. In fact, independents, not Democrats or Republicans, represent the plurality of Massachusetts voters. Independents can vote in party primaries, which means that primary candidates in Massachusetts are not forced to move as far left or far right to appeal to the relatively small number of highly ideological voters who typically turn out in closed partisan primaries. Massachusetts voters value well-qualified and problem-solving candidates. And because politicians here work together, they can tackle the problems other states cannot.
The Commonwealth also has a long tradition of aspiring to national leadership in vital areas such as same-sex marriage, public education reform, and others. Gridlock is not in vogue in Massachusetts — for residents, for leaders, or for legislators. Massachusetts governors in recent decades have been drawn from both parties. The governors selected by voters have tended to be well-qualified problem solvers, not partisans. A Massachusetts tradition is for governors to meet frequently with the leaders of the House and Senate to build relationships that support problem solving instead of bitter fights.
The Massachusetts Legislature is a full-time, professional, deliberative body, not a part-time legislature as in many states with limited capacity (or interest) in collaboration and problem solving. Our state government is based in Boston, not a smaller city dominated by politics (like Albany or Sacramento). While Democrats have long held the majority in the legislature, many Democrats and Republicans in Massachusetts are moderates, and the legislative process in the Massachusetts House and Senate is more open, transparent, and collaborative than in many states. Massachusetts voters also have little sympathy for legislators who block progress versus “working things out.”
A recent example of problem solving at work in Massachusetts is the Education Funding Reform Bill of November 2019. A wide consensus has been forged over time, in government and among residents, of the critical importance of reducing funding disparities across school districts due to low local income levels and lower tax revenues. After being unable to settle on a final version of a new education funding bill in 2018, continuing discussions and refinements led to passing the Student Opportunity Act in November, and passing it unanimously.
Judicial nominations in Massachusetts are carefully screened by an independent body, and the judges appointed are qualified professionals, not just partisan loyalists committed to party ideology. Turning our courts into heavily partisan bodies, as has sadly occurred at the federal level, has not taken place in Massachusetts.
The business community here has also sought to work actively and collaboratively with government, not to pursue special interests, but in support of needed improvements in areas such as education, economic policy, and others. Recently, for example, the Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce has been actively engaged in helping craft a viable mass transit funding model, a key issue for mobility, the cost of living, and the cost of doing business.
Finally, Massachusetts media are less partisan and less polarized than in many other states, not to mention nationally; statewide media tend to be problem- and progress-oriented.
Like all states, however, Massachusetts has areas for improvement. By far our greatest competitive social progress weakness is in shelter, with a major housing shortage, a lack of affordable housing, and consequences in terms of homelessness (though Massachusetts is a leader in providing housing for the homeless). Other key areas for improvement in the state are drug overdose deaths, the violent crime rate, boosting renewable energy, and improving water quality. Many of these weaknesses are well understood, and major efforts on affordable housing are underway, but reforms have been challenging due to cities and towns blocking progress.
A recent concern has been traffic congestion, delays, and the pressing need for better public transportation. This is important to improving opportunity and access to work for all residents. Massachusetts has recognized this problem over time, and ranks seventh among all states in public transportation. But major efforts to improve are rightly underway, involving all the key constituencies, to make the MBTA and other aspects of mobility better, including a new funding model. Time will tell whether we will be successful, but a strong and broad consensus on the need for change is clear. Other states are frozen in denial while the federal government has failed to make any real progress in restoring and upgrading our national infrastructure for decades.
There are surely other reasons why Massachusetts has been able to progress. What is clear, though, is that the people and leaders of Massachusetts have created a governing system and a political culture that values collaboration, compromise, and problem-solving, and that produces real solutions.
A final reflection is that higher income states tend to achieve better social progress, and vice versa. This is because social performance and economic performance reinforce each other.
However, the ability of states to turn income levels into social progress varies sharply by state. For example, California and Texas are underperforming significantly on social progress compared to their income levels. In Massachusetts, our leadership and advancement in social progress has contributed to economic success. Our state has the highest median household income of any state, and household income has been growing rapidly. However, inequality remains too high and we have much more to do to ensure that our prosperity is shared more widely.
To get the American Dream back on track, we must recognize the critical link between economic and social progress, and address our social progress weaknesses state by state rather than wait for the federal government to act. To do this, states will need to learn from the best. Massachusetts has been an undeniable leader in social progress, and it is time that the rest of the country take notice.