WE HERE IN Massachusetts boast of being home to the first of almost everything in the country. The first public library, the first public school, the first university. Fast forward a few hundred years, and we set the table for the Affordable Care Act and were the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, suggesting we haven’t lost our trailblazing Massachusetts mojo.
But is the claim that we remain a beacon for the rest of the country still on solid ground?
Yes and no is the split decision rendered by Massachusetts residents in a CommonWealth Beacon poll released last week, a finding pored over on a new episode of The Codcast by MassINC Polling Group president Steve Koczela and UMass Boston political science professor Erin O’Brien.
“It is complex and it’s nuanced,” Koczela said of results from the poll he and his colleagues carried out. “Overall, they think things here are pretty good,” he said of state residents. “They think the quality of life here is pretty good. They think their own quality of life is pretty good and is pretty much better than it is elsewhere. They also think Massachusetts is doing well on a number of specific policy issues compared to the rest of the country – no surprise, education, health care, higher ed, those kinds of things.” But residents see the state as doing much worse than elsewhere when it comes to traffic, taxes, the overall cost of living and “the big one,” as Koczela put it, of housing costs.
“I was struck in the poll by how confident Massachusetts residents are, saying that our best days are ahead of us,” said O’Brien, co-editor of the recent book The Politics of Massachusetts Exceptionalism: Reputation Meets Reality. “That really stuck out to me. Whereas when they assess the United States, they said our best days are behind us. That is a confidence, a hubris that is good news for governing. But the seeds of our discontent are here,” she said, when the conversation turns to bread-and-butter issues related to residents’ “material well-being.”
Alongside significant economic worries, poll respondents voiced strong support for things like LGBTQ rights and the state’s right-to-shelter law, issues that O’Brien said appeal to “our better angels.” But concern with issues of economic well-being and support for more value-laden “post-materialist” policies are on something of a collision course, said O’Brien, who unpacked that divide in residents’ attitudes in a separate CommonWealth Beacon essay.
Despite lots of dissatisfaction over everyday issues like traffic and housing costs, the poll showed fairly favorable numbers for Gov. Maura Healey and other statewide officials. Meanwhile, half of respondents said they approved of the job being done by the Legislature, while only 30 percent disapproved.
Koczela said that has been a pattern seen in Massachusetts polling. There is “discontent with the actual outcomes that these leaders produce,” he said. “But then when you ask about the leaders themselves, you see high numbers. Probably the best recent example of this, of course, is Charlie Baker, where you had lots of discontent about the functioning of the MBTA or any of these other things that there’s still discontent about. But then you’d look and you’d see 70 percent approval ratings year after year after year.”
Even in areas where the poll showed residents across the board tend to view things here more favorably than elsewhere, such as higher education or health care, there were gaps between those favorability numbers based on income and educational attainment. (See here for the poll crosstabs breaking down results according to various subgroups.)
“If you have a bachelor’s degree, if you have an advanced degree, if you live in a household where income is over $100,000, you’re much, much more likely to say you think Massachusetts is doing better on those issues than people who do not have a bachelor’s or who live in households where income’s under 50,000,” said Koczela. “If you have been able to avail yourself of the higher education system, then you can see and you know that it is better than it is elsewhere in many cases. If you have health insurance that allows you to get into the world class health care facilities that we have here in Massachusetts, or you can afford to do so, you can see how good things are.”
On the other hand, said O’Brien, “if you’re that lower wage earner or you are the individual who says, you know, the Massachusetts miracle hasn’t come my way, then why would you continue to keep buying in? Government hasn’t benefited you. The poll doesn’t suggest that there’s been a wholesale walking away [from belief in government] by lower income individuals at all. But when I say ‘the seeds of the discontent’ – they’re there, and they’re based in individuals’ material reality and how hard it is to make ends meet in Massachusetts.”