WITH GOV. HEALEY now in office, it is time for Massachusetts to embrace a transformative policy agenda. Rather than continuing to tinker around the edges and address individual policy areas in a piecemeal fashion, Massachusetts is uniquely positioned to lead the nation – and the world – in demonstrating the transformative power of making large integrated public investments that link housing, education, transportation, environment, and health.
In her inaugural speech, Gov. Healey announced multiple specific actions to achieve the ambitious goals she has for the Commonwealth. She plans to establish a new state-level housing secretary, to hire 1,000 additional workers at the MBTA, to create a new interagency task force to win federal funds, and to conduct an equity audit in every agency. She announced the establishment of Massachusetts’s first cabinet-level climate chief. She committed to leading with empathy and equity.
We applaud these commitments and support her vision and ambition. But to be effective in leveraging state policy to reverse the intersecting crises that are currently worsening vulnerabilities and expanding disparities and inequities in the Commonwealth, the governor, the Legislature, and the people of Massachusetts need to commit to transformative, integrated policies.
There is plenty of work to do. While the Bay State is internationally recognized as a global leader in education, health care, biotechnology, and innovation, stubborn disparities across a range of outcomes highlight the inadequacies and injustices of our siloed approach to public policy. We are among the worst in the nation when it comes to racial disparities in income, wealth, housing problems, and incarceration rates. And we are behind other states when it comes to human rights protections and educational opportunities for immigrants. Massachusetts also has the highest child care cost burden in all 50 states, forcing families to choose between paying for other critical needs like housing, food, transportation, and health care. And disparities in both educational achievement and opioid-related deaths have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These issues show that solving stubborn social problems requires an integrated approach. As a diverse group of policy-engaged academics, we see a real opportunity in this moment. In addition to a Democratic governor, we have Democratic leadership at the national level and in the largest cities in Massachusetts, and comfortable majorities in both branches of the Legislature. Massachusetts should take this opportunity to lead in creating a more just, equitable, and healthy future for all, especially those most disadvantaged by the current system.
To take advantage of this historic opportunity, we urge Gov. Healey to propose in the coming months a series of significant, multi-sector investments that bring together a range of issues. By designing policies that link these different issue areas together and by prioritizing large public investments in previously underinvested in households and communities, we can demonstrate the transformative potential of ambitious integrated public policy.
To illustrate this potential, let’s take the example of housing. The current housing crisis in the Commonwealth, including a lack in housing quantity, quality, consistency, and affordability, affects every aspect of life, including transportation, employment, health care, criminal justice, and education. Rising costs tied to gentrification in Boston and other cities are forcing people to move, creating a cascading effect that increases rent and house prices throughout the state. This results in more cars on the road as people drive further distances to work, increasing congestion and pollution.
Poor housing quality also has significant negative consequences for health, educational attainment and social mobility. Evictions can increase risk of arrest and incarceration. And our existing school segregation by both race and class is exacerbated by housing insecurity because high-income families increasingly live in towns unaffordable even to the middle class and that lack low- or mixed-income housing.
Some fear that Massachusetts housing costs could eventually tank the state economy. Housing provides one lens into how a coordinated statewide public investment in safe, new, energy efficient, transit-centered, community-focused, multi-use housing developments will have multiple widespread positive impacts for the state. We need to build affordable housing across the state that is well-connected to public transportation. This includes enforcing and building on the MBTA Communities law passed last year, which requires communities served by the MBTA to zone for a minimum amount of housing.
Higher education is another domain that needs a joined-up approach and an increase in public investment to better leverage its role in advancing economic equity and racial justice in Massachusetts. A recent study of transfers from Massachusetts community colleges to four-year colleges found that the MassTransfer program was successful in encouraging community college graduates to go on to enroll in and complete bachelor’s degrees. However, this boost did not happen for students from low-income families, probably because those students had competing responsibilities to support themselves and their families by doing paid work.
As Gov. Healey moves to establish the MassReconnect program to fund free community college for adults over 25 with no college degree, her team should consider carefully how to ensure that the state’s most vulnerable adults can make use of the program, which has the potential to increase equity in our state by expanding and diversifying the workforce in all sectors.
Massachusetts has led the nation on transformative social policy before. Our innovative approach to health care policy, the 2006 comprehensive health reform bill, served as the model for the national-level Affordable Care Act (ACA). The ACA, through a number of expansions, directives, and incentives, has dramatically and fundamentally improved multiple aspects of life in America, including major nationwide reductions in mortality, income inequality, housing instability, and police arrests. And our path-breaking health care policy of 2006 was passed under bipartisan leadership: A Republican governor alongside Democratic majorities in the 2 Houses of the legislature. For the 2023 policy agenda, voters across the state have given policy-makers a very strong mandate to enact innovative policies to support our collective well-being.
More recently, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced a “Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools,” allocating two billion dollars. Rather than simply renovating schools, Wu’s plan builds in community engagement, climate resilience, racial equity, and community development as the city’s leaders rebuild schools for the future.
To be sure, a comprehensive, integrated approach will cost money, but the benefits will quickly outpace the costs. But with many of the intersecting crises we are currently facing, the costs of inaction are greater than the costs of making proactive, intentional public investments. Voters have already led the way in prioritizing big public investments by passing the Fair Share Amendment, which will generate $1.3 billion in 2023 for education and public transportation. This funding will bolster educational opportunities for children most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and will contribute to revitalizing our public higher education. It will also provide a huge boost to transform the chronically troubled MBTA to increase ridership for non-car and car owners alike and improve transit to healthcare and other social services in parts of the state that people are moving to. And we can further build revenue by looking to the Commonwealth’s most successful businesses, perhaps through an ‘innovation tax’ that churns innovation success back into providing opportunities for low-income innovators of color to also launch bold new ideas.
Now is not the time for piecemeal, one-dimensional policy making. We need to connect across silos, across the state, and across the current physical-social infrastructure divide. Seeing problems and their solutions as multifaceted and interlinked is a transformative kind of policy-making, which we collectively invite the Healey administration and the Legislature to lead as we enter 2023.
Julian Agyeman is a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University and author of Introducing Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning and Practice. Tiffany Joseph is an associate professor of sociology at Northeastern University and author of Race on the Move: Brazilian Migrants and the Global Reconstruction of Race. Jessica Simes is an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University and author of Punishing Places: The Geography of Mass Imprisonment. Jennie Stephens is Dean’s Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the author of Diversifying Power: Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy. Natasha Warikoo is Lenore Stern professor in the Social Sciences at Tufts University and author of Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools and Is Affirmative Action Fair? The Myth of Equity in College Admissions. The authors are members Scholars Strategy Network, an organization of university-based scholars committed to using research to improve policy and strengthen democracy.