fb-pixelMassachusetts’ middle class is feeling the squeeze. Can the next governor do anything to help? - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Massachusetts’ middle class is feeling the squeeze. Can the next governor do anything to help?

From housing to health care to higher education, costs are mounting for many in Massachusetts. Can Beacon Hill actually make it better?

Patrick Guerrero helps his father, Antonio as he prepares salsa in the kitchen of his restaurant, El Taller Cafe, in Lawrence.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

This November in Massachusetts, the economy is on the ballot. In poll after poll voters say their biggest concerns in the race to be the state’s next governor are financial, with 56 percent of people in a Suffolk University/Boston Globe/NBC10 Boston/Telemundo poll out last week saying they’re somewhat or very worried about their financial situation.

The reasons are obvious, and many.

Sky-high inflation, surging interest rates, spikes in the price of gas and energy, all exist on top of seemingly ever-rising costs for housing, health care, energy, and education that combine to make Massachusetts one of the most expensive places to live in the country.

Advertisement



It all adds up. And it’s been hitting home for people like Shelagh Flynn, a 70-year-old Gloucester resident who spent most of her life in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood. After working for nonprofits and as a Boston city employee, she’s now on a fixed income, and feels the pinch on every trip to Market Basket.

“It used to be, I’d get to the end of the month and I’d have a couple hundred bucks left, but with this inflation that hasn’t been true. I’m hitting rock bottom every month,” she said. “I’m not sure that there’s a lot that state government can do.”

But Flynn, a registered Democrat, has some ideas. So do policy makers. We asked a mix of voters and advocates for suggestions on how the next governor can help the middle class.

“This is a generational moment. And I think that federal government is not going to be the partner that we need it to be for at least a few more years,” says Wilnelia Rivera, the president of the Rivera Consulting Inc., a strategic-planning group. “So in the absence of that, what are we gonna do?”

Consider this a toolkit for giving everyone a bit of a break.

Advertisement



Housing

For many voters, the cost of housing is among the most — if not the most — pressing issue.

Flynn would love to see the next governor reinstitute rent control, so the people she works with at the Grace Center homeless resource center in Gloucester could have a better chance of finding an affordable place to live. “A lot of them have jobs. They work the fishing boats,” she said. “But they can never do the rent for first month, last month, and security deposit. That’s a big, big problem.”

Gissell Vargas, of Lynn, is experiencing the housing shortage firsthand. The former teacher has been living with her mother and three of her four children since going on disability after a heart attack.

“I’ve been on the waiting list for public housing for many years,” the 50-year-old Democrat said. “And I’m just waiting to be called.”

Rachel Heller, chief executive officer of Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, says the next governor should beef up the state’s rental voucher program, to keep pace with higher rents. In the ‘90s, Heller said, Massachusetts spent $120 million to serve about 20,000 families in the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program. Now the state spends $160 million but serves only half as many families.

“We need to grow [the program] and make sure that everyone who is eligible receives it,” she said.

But we also need more housing, period, said Lawrence resident and artist Patrick Guerrero, who works at his family’s businesses, Cafe Azteca and El Taller Cafe and Bookstore. At 37, the registered Democrat is part of a generation that wonders if it will be able to stay in Massachusetts.

Advertisement



“My family owned their home for the last 36 years, but I don’t ever see myself ever owning a house,” he said. “I don’t think that will be in the cards for me.”

Housing was a top priority for Governor Charlie Baker, and Jesse Kanson-Benanav, executive director of advocacy group Abundant Housing Massachusetts, said the new law requiring 175 communities served by the MBTA to zone for some denser housing laid a strong groundwork for his successor. But since some communities are resisting, Kanson-Benanav suggests that the next governor must take a firm line, even threatening to cut state transportation funding to communities that don’t comply. He points to a 40-year-old law still on the books.

Executive order 215, implemented by Ed King in 1982, says that the governor could restrict all discretionary-related funds to municipalities that don’t do enough to meet the demands for housing in our region,” he said. “Failing to comply with the MBTA communities law is a violation of that executive order.”

Health care

Many voters said they’d like to see reforms around MassHealth, the state’s public health insurance program. Vargas fears her teeth might fall out due to substandard dental care. “They only give coverage for the simplest things,” she said. “If you need more work done you need to wait to approve it.”

Advertisement



And Guerrero says he’s “constantly jumping through hoops” to get insulin for his diabetes through the program.

“I have to call every month just to re-order my supplies,” he said. “But that wouldn’t be a big deal if I got my supplies.”

The next governor can help by eliminating MassHealth copays for medications for chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease, said Amy Rosenthal, the executive director of Health Care For All, the same way COVID vaccines don’t require a copay.

“Why are we not doing this for all chronic conditions? It will be a cost savings for the health system.”

And having MassHealth reimburse preventative, public health needs, like healthy food, HEPA filters on vacuums, lead abatement, and air conditioning units for asthma patients would also help cut overall health care costs, says Carlene Pavlos, the executive director of Massachusetts Public Health Association.

“Having the governor put the full weight of his or her administration behind novel strategies for reimbursement could make an enormous difference,” she said.

Meanwhile, premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance have climbed steadily, now costing Massachusetts workers and their employers on average more than $22,000 a year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. David Cutler, a health economist at Harvard University, said cutting health care costs isn’t like flipping a switch. But the next governor could take steps out of the gate to freeze or reduce insurance rates. “Administrative costs are a ripe area to go after” as well, he said.

Ultimately, the next governor has to decide “what they want to push people to do,” he continued. “Forcing some short-term price reductions” could start the clock on an effort to move the state’s health care infrastructure to create more efficiencies.

Advertisement



“It’s not a magic formula,” he said. “Nothing is quick.”

Higher education

One of the clearest ways to help lower and middle-class students, said Randy Albelda, professor emerita of economics at UMass Boston: Adequately fund public higher education.

Albelda, who watched tuition at UMass Boston climb from $600 per course to $6,000 in her time teaching there, said the state should tap proceeds from the so-called “millionaires tax” — if voters approve it next month — for higher ed. That could lower tuition, reduce student debt, and maybe, she said, “students would have one job instead of three jobs when they went to college so they can do the work they’re assigned.”

Employers could also step up to help. Rob McCarron, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts, hopes the governor will offer tax breaks to companies willing to help pay down their employees’ college debt. A survey of young workers found 86 percent of respondents would commit to their employer for five years if the employer helped pay off their loans. At that point, he said, they may also be committing to staying in Massachusetts.

But voters like Karen Zablonski, a 58-year-old Republican from Gardner who says she’s living at “the lower end of the middle class” don’t want the next governor to focus on higher ed alone. She doesn’t have a college degree, and believes the next governor should focus on funding education for tradespeople instead of footing the bill for student debt relief.

“They put such an emphasis on college but tradesmen are needed so badly and you don’t need to be a computer genius to make money,” she said. “I think technical schools and trades are the way to go.”

Energy

As the temperatures drops, Zablonski is also worried about her energy bills and recently applied for fuel assistance. She supports Geoff Diehl’s proposals to open up more gas pipelines to bring down the cost of energy, something that Maura Healey has opposed.

Karen Zablonski is living on her husband's disability, wants housing vouchers from the state, better Commuter Rail service, assistance for small business owners, and more workforce training for trades.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Meanwhile, Guerrero wants more investment in green energy and for the next governor to do more to tax polluters.

Anne Kelly, vice president of government relations for Ceres, a Boston-based nonprofit that works with companies and investors on sustainability issues, says that the next governor has to continue to invest in the transition to renewable energy.

“A lower-income person is paying a disproportionate share of their income on energy bills,” she said. “The cheapest kilowatt hour is the one you don’t use.”

To that end, she said, the state should invest in ways to decarbonize older buildings to reduce energy costs for residents. And, critically, she said the next governor also needs to pour money into public transportation.

“There’s no question we have to do a better job in investing in mass transit writ large and getting more people back on the trains,” she said.

Child care

In the throes of COVID shutdowns, child care was on everyone’s mind, and the federal government allocated over $50 billion to help bolster the child care sector. The next governor needs to tackle the issue with the same sense of urgency, says Rivera. Affordable child care options for kids under 4, she says, would be a gamechanger for families across the economic spectrum of Massachusetts, even the very well-off.

“Let’s say you and your partner are making $300,000. You’re fortunate, but you’re living in the city of Boston and you have two children,” Rivera said. “You can’t afford child care either.”

Albelda says a proposal from local advocacy group Common Start Coalition to cap child care costs at 7 percent of household income statewide would have a tremendous impact for these families. Maura Healey’s plan for a refundable child tax credit could also move the needle, she said, much like the short-lived expansion of federal child tax credits did last year. “It halved poverty,” Albelda said.

If the next governor could find a way to continue these measures, it could definitely help parents like Vargas, who has pulled her children out of after school sports and other programs because of the costs.

“We’re not sitting pretty,” Vargas said, “basically everything goes to bills.”


Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her @janellenanos.