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The Failed State of Massachusetts

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The brilliant scholar-activists Steve Striffler and Aviva Chomsky, both of whom teach in Massachusetts and both of whom specialize in Latin American politics and social movements, make the argument that the Bay State is actually a failed state by many measures.

And yet, it is precisely Massachusetts’s wealth and progressive character that makes the failure of government so glaring. Two of the defining features of “failed states”—something typically associated with conflict-ridden countries in the Third World—are the inability to provide public services and the lack of democratic institutions that allow for meaningful citizen participation. In many cases, as in Massachusetts, these two failures are directly connected. The state’s inability to provide core public goods such as transportation, housing, education, and healthcare is a result of a closed political system that serves entrenched interests and undermines the political will of the people. And, here again, Boston is the leader. The city’s unrivaled economic inequality, its reputation for racism, its traffic, and its crumbling system of public education are all tied to state and local institutions that are effectively closed boxes shut off from public input or influence (whether it be the legislature, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the MBTA, etc.).

This failure has been a long time coming, but its visible manifestations have recently become particularly acute for a simple reason: All of our fundamental public goods and services—transportation, housing, education, and healthcare—are simultaneously in crisis. And crisis in one area tends to compound or expose crisis in others. A crumbling transportation system, for example, puts further stress on already debilitated systems of education, housing, and healthcare. We are in a downward spiral that is making the path out more difficult by the day. What is even more troubling is that despite the clarity of the crisis, our government remains closed off from meaningful popular participation and therefore not only lacks the will and capacity to fund public goods but to pass legislation that addresses the fundamental issues at stake. Massachusetts is a failed state.

Take transportation. Massachusetts political leaders have for decades doubled down on a car-first vision, leaving Boston with the worst traffic in the nation and a system of public transportation that is inadequate, unreliable, out of date, and even unsafe. Failed public transportation, in turn, forces more people into cars and onto roads, intensifying a race to nowhere that has us stuck in place while breathing toxic fumes. It also serves to undermine the state’s limited efforts to combat climate change.

To the extent that we are moving at all, it is in the wrong direction. While other states and cities are confronting transportation crises throughout the nation, Massachusetts political leaders are either missing in action or driving us off the cliff. Gov. Baker and Mayor Walsh have essentially abdicated leadership, in effect opposing efforts to incentivize people to drive less and use public transportation more. Under current conditions, taking the bus, subway, or rail is to run the risk of arriving to work late, getting stranded completely, or falling off the tracks altogether. Political leadership is precisely what is needed if we want to make the changes necessary to make public transportation a realistic option for most people.

On the one hand, congested roads and dysfunctional public transportation serve to raise housing costs in urban areas as people concentrate in certain locales to avoid soul-crushing commutes. On the other hand, outrageous housing costs force working people out of the city and farther from work sites, driving cars they cannot afford greater distances in order to secure rents that allow them to survive. Yet, despite the fact that voters throughout the state consistently point to the housing crisis as the most important issue facing the Commonwealth, politicians have done little to address the problem in any systematic way. Last year Gov. Baker proposed a bill that lawmakers failed to pass because it didn’t go far enough—and so they did nothing. 

Mayor Walsh has at times talked a good game and helped create over 30,000 homes with tens of thousands more in the pipeline. But far too few are affordable, and there seems to be little political will to confront the problem or even recognize that government has a responsibility to ensure people are adequately housed. The consequence of inaction—of letting the free market and backroom deals through an old boy network reign—is a development landscape that reproduces inequality through glittery monstrosities such as the Seaport District while forcing more poor people into homelessness. The state’s homeless population jumped 14% in 2018. Working families are struggling to survive as their income is devoured by rent and the dream of home ownership slips away, and even the upwardly mobile are leaving the region for more affordable and transit-friendly locales.

Nor can we take solace in our educational system. To quote a Boston Globe headline, “Beacon Hill lawmakers have been shortchanging the education of students nearly $1 billion a year,” a fact that has disproportionately hurt low-income students, students of color, and recent immigrants. Less than one in three black and Latino fourth graders read at grade level, and only 28% of low-income eighth graders are on grade level in math. This is not entirely surprising. Massachusetts “is no longer among the states that direct more state and local dollars to the districts serving the most low-income students,” and Boston schools are more segregated than they were when the tumultuous process of desegregation tore apart the city decades ago.

Nor are those students likely to catch up if they manage to make their way to the state’s underfunded public colleges and universities. Our political leaders cut funding for higher education by 14% between 2001 and 2017, the cost of which was passed on to students who now leave college with around $30,000 in debt. Average student debt has grown faster in Massachusetts than in all states but one, and the state ranks near the bottom in terms of higher education support per $1,000 of personal income. What that means is that despite being a relatively wealthy state, our political leaders have been very stingy when it comes to funding public higher education. Massachusetts is failing the students of working families at every stage of the educational process, from preschool through college.

One could make similar arguments about California, Oregon, and Washington as well. The rise of these wealthy states and their booming economy has led to some good social policies, but has also led to a lot of selfishness in terms of things such as housing policy, which drives poverty and homelessness. But what about the value of my home!?!?! Indeed, what about the value of your home as homeless people take shelter around the edge of your property. One thing about Latin American and southeast Asian cities where I have been is that it’s not that there’s usually a huge physical distance between the wealthy and the poor masses. It’s that the wealthy are locked in behind gates and fences and security guards and cameras while the poor are just outside. Thinking of the future of the bluest states in a similar light is not a real happy vision. Of course, calling Massachusetts a failed state is meant to be provocative, but it’s also important that you feel provoked by these issues.

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