Reality Check

Originally published at DigBoston.

By Steve Striffler, director of the Labor Resource Center and professor of Anthropology and Avi Chomsky, professor of history at Salem State University

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Massachusetts as a failed state, Boston as a failed city?

The idea that Massachusetts is a failed state and Boston a failed city sounds a bit absurd on the surface. Massachusetts is one of the wealthiest US states, boasts a highly educated population, and has a robust economy driven by technology, financial services, biotech, and some of the leading universities in the world. Massachusetts is also known as a liberal bastion, touting a commitment to the public good while boasting a progressive social agenda. And, in many ways, the city of Boston leads the way. A thriving metropolis, Boston sees itself as a leader in intellectual innovation, climate change initiatives, and healthcare reform, and is also proud of its progressive values.

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.

Finally, if there is irony in an educational system that fails our students while boasting the best universities in the world, this is no less true when it comes to a cutting edge healthcare system that many people simply cannot afford. Passed in 2006, Romneycare—Massachusetts’s failed attempt at universal healthcare—was so plagued by increasing costs that legislators were forced to address it again by 2012. They whiffed the second time around as well. Healthcare costs continue to balloon, and although Massachusetts has among the lowest percentage of uninsured people in the country, more than a third reported going without needed healthcare despite having insurance, nearly half have trouble gaining access to care, and about the same reported financial problems due to healthcare costs. Despite the transparency of the crisis, the state’s policy makers continue to fail to take steps to address the fundamental contradictions in our healthcare system.

What this means, in short, is that the progressive reputation of Massachusetts and Boston is largely a facade that hides a meaner reality and helps allow the state and city to disregard their responsibility for the public good. The convergence of crises—the simultaneous failure of all our major public services—obviously impacts people with lower incomes disproportionately. Yet, in different ways, pretty much everyone who works for a living depends on publicly supported healthcare, education, transportation, and housing to survive and thrive. Even for the more affluent, who have become particularly adept at insulating themselves by opting out of public services (through private schools, healthcare, etc.), there are consequences. Fancy cars and private services only get you so far if you cannot breathe the air or get from one place to the next. More than this, we have to ask ourselves: Do we really want to live in a failed state where the rich and powerful ensconce themselves in a world of private schools and gated communities while a sea of dispossessed serve their needs and are locked out in every other way? We are on our way.

This failure, moreover, goes beyond lack of funding for basic services. Boston was quick, for example, to declare itself a sanctuary city in 2017, but the state still cannot pass common-sense pro-immigration laws (in-state tuition, drivers’ licenses, safe communities). Nor has Massachusetts managed to pass a wage theft bill to ensure that all workers get paid and immigrant workers in particular are not preyed upon. Likewise, Massachusetts is generally progressive on legal rights for the LBGTQ community and was the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. And yet nearly a third of LBGTQ youth of color are unemployed and food insecure. We are at times able to pass progressive bills with important symbolic implications, but legislation that even moderately challenges the status quo or confronts powerful economic interests rarely sees the light of day.

This failure is not due to a lack of financial or human resources. We have the money. And there are plenty of hardworking nonprofits, labor unions, and other progressive organizations that have relentlessly agitated for meaningful public policy. They, in turn, have been supported by sympathetic legislators.

How, then, is it possible that these progressive forces nonetheless find themselves continually pushing the legislative rock up Beacon Hill only to see it roll back down year after year? Why can’t we pass and implement the sorts of policies we need and that most Massachusetts citizens support?

The answer is multifaceted and is not disconnected from entrenched interests who seek to control government for their own benefit. It lies at least in part on Beacon Hill and in a legislative process where power is concentrated in a few hands that prevent progressive legislation from making it to the floor for a vote or even debate. Progressive legislators have been trying for years to transform the rules in order to loosen the authoritarian grip of a small cadre of leaders such as House Speaker Robert DeLeo and essentially free up the legislative process. Similar efforts have been tried (and largely failed) with respect to the other major institutions that run our systems of healthcare, transportation, education, and housing. Our collective inability to democratize state institutions that remain closed off to public participation has contributed to a failed state that lacks the capacity to provide even basic public services. We deserve better. We should demand better.


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