U.S. News & World Report handed Massachusetts bragging rights Tuesday. In the publication’s first-ever national ranking of the 50 states, Massachusetts came out as “best,” boosted by strength in education and health care.
Governor Charlie Baker, up for reelection next year, ran with the news, eagerly (and wonkily) trumpeting Massachusetts’ virtues on national television.
“We have a lot of really smart people, we have a lot of great schools,” Baker said on CBS. “That has led to a whole series of terrific what I would call ‘ecosystems’ around technology and health care and finance and education. And you put it all together, and in this day and age, in this kind of global economy and global world we live in, it’s a terrific mix.”
But the full ranking was nuanced, showing Massachusetts lagging in economic opportunity, with low levels of affordable housing and a big gap between rich households and everyone else.
Still, specialists say, the overall superlative from a well-known third party is political gold, despite the ranking being based on the whims of U.S. News’ editors.
“We’re going to see this ranking in Republican commercials in 2018 and in the governor’s speeches and soundbites, repeated over and over throughout the state,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, a Tufts University political science professor. “They are going to describe it as something that reflects the drive and competence and vision of the governor.”
Is that legitimate? No, said Berry, who regards the ranking as “junk science” and “arbitrary.” But that has nothing to do with the potency of the placement. After all, “it’s politics,” he added.
In the national TV interview — rare for Baker, who prefers to speak to local outlets — the Republican governor underscored the state’s bipartisan approach to governance, contrasting it with the dysfunction of Washington, D.C.
People and politicians in Massachusetts, he said, “are OK with the ideas of compromise and collaboration.”
The ranking could also be a boon to recruiters and chambers of commerce looking to bring talent to Massachusetts. After all, it’s easier to sell a job in the “best” state.
Meanwhile, the news stirred up a classic New England rivalry.
New Hampshire, land of low taxes, low poverty, and lots of economic opportunity, placed Number 2 on the list behind Massachusetts.
“They’ve obviously made a mistake,” said former governor John H. Sununu with a laugh. “They’ve got them backward.”
His son, current Governor Chris Sununu , blasted out a statement saying “this announcement is something that Granite Staters can be particularly proud of today.”
Former New Hampshire governor and US senator Judd Gregg took a shot at Massachusetts’ 5.1 percent income tax and 6.25 percent sales tax rate when told about the rankings.
“If you like to pay a lot of taxes on your income and sales taxes when you buy a car,” he said, “Massachusetts is truly the winner.”
The full rankings, which U.S. News put together working with consulting firm McKinsey & Company, was based on 68 metrics. They ranged from health insurance enrollment (Massachusetts is Number 1) to college readiness (Massachusetts ranked Number 1, based on ACT scores) to incarceration (Massachusetts has one of the lowest per-capita rates).
But the state has clear deficits. On a common measure, income inequality among households, only five states had more inequality than Massachusetts, the rankings found.
Massachusetts ranked 44th in housing affordability, based on a comparison of housing prices with family incomes and mortgage interest rates. Advocates say the state’s expensive housing stock is a driver of economic and racial segregation and contributes to many families’ struggles with homelessness.
And if you think transportation’s in trouble from the Berkshires to Brewster, the rankings back you up. Massachusetts ranked 47th in commute time and 47th in road quality.
Michael Goldman, a longtime Democratic consultant who advises Attorney General Maura Healey and Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston, said the ranking is good news for all Massachusetts pols (who are mostly Democrats).
“Whether you’re the governor, or the mayor of Boston, or the attorney general, or a state rep, or state senator, you always want to be able to go back to your constituents and say an independent arbiter says, ‘We’re the best.’ ”
But, Goldman said, when it comes to the governor’s race, the main driver of Baker’s success or failure will be his ability to separate himself from President Trump’s actions.
In the CBS interview, Baker was asked about sitting next to Trump’s daughter Ivanka at an event for the nation’s governors in Washington.
Baker indicated it was not a political conversation. He said he spent most of the time talking about the scourge of opioid abuse in Massachusetts and across the country. And he hailed the Massachusetts law to address the crisis as a blueprint for states around the nation.
The chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, for his part, said the ranking is a testament to every resident who works to make the state a welcoming place to live.
However, chairman Gus Bickford said, “we can’t just stand still, and this report highlights several areas that we know need improvement.”
Bickford said the state must focus on boosting affordable housing, raising the minimum wage, and passing a law to mandate paid family and medical leave.
What about the 50th “Best State,” Louisiana?
A spokesman for Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who took office in 2016 after years of Republican rule, emphasized the list was based on lagging indicators from before his term.
Communications director Richard Carbo said the ranking system could be a valuable tool in guiding public policy, “but the initial report lacks critical information and uses outdated statistics.”
For example, he said, after Edwards expanded Medicaid, more than 400,000 Louisianans have obtained health coverage. “Those enrollment figures aren’t included in this report.”
But best or worst, first or last, states and elected officials weren’t the true winner of the rankings. That honor goes to the publication that put them together: U.S. News & World Report, self-proclaimed arbiter of good colleges, hospitals, and now the places Americans live.
U.S. News raked in media attention Tuesday, and on its online “Best States” list it included prominent links to some of its other “Best” rankings.
Which may lead readers to wonder if the publication would land at the top of another type of ranking: “Best Clickbait.”