FOR THE second year in a row, the Census Bureau reports, the population of Massachusetts has shrunk. During the 12 months ending July 1, 2005, the Bay State experienced a net loss of more than 8,600 residents, or 0.1 percent of its population. It was one of only three states to end the year with fewer people than it had at the start -- New York and Rhode Island were the others -- and the only one to do so for the second year running.
A statistical blip this ain't. Not counting foreign immigrants, Massachusetts has been losing more people than it attracts every year since 1990, according to MassINC, a Boston-based research institute. During the 12 years from 1990 to 2002 -- the excess of people leaving Massachusetts over those entering -- was 213,000, and the hemorrhaging has only gotten worse since then. MassINC reported in 2003 that one-fourth of Bay State residents would leave if they had the opportunity to do so. Among those who have lived in Massachusetts for less than 10 years, the proportion is even higher.
What gives? Why don't more people want to move to Massachusetts? Why would so many who are already here -- here in the storied home of Harvard, John Kerry, and the New England Patriots -- be racing for the exits?
We all know the conventional answers: People prefer to live where the weather is warmer, the housing cheaper, the jobs more plentiful. Those are clearly important factors. But a hatred of cold winters doesn't explain New Hampshire's net gain of 78,000 transplanted Massachusetts residents between 1990 and 2002 or the shift of more than 6,000 who have moved to Rhode Island since 1999. Yes, overpriced real estate and a high cost of living are serious issues in Massachusetts. But they are serious issues in California, Florida, Hawaii, and New Jersey, too, yet none of them is losing population. Why is Massachusetts?
As for the sluggish job market that has kept, or driven, so many people away from the Bay State -- there's no denying it's a problem. But focusing on the failure to create more jobs begs the real question: Why aren't they being created? What is it about Massachusetts that keeps employers -- or potential employers -- from taking the risk involved in launching a new enterprise or expanding an old one? Is it always a business issue -- some well-crunched numbers having to do with production capacity or transportation costs or market share? My hunch is that there is often something less concrete but more pervasive at work. I suspect that entrepreneurs frequently decide not to take a chance on Massachusetts for the same reason that young adults, fresh from graduate school and ready to start a career, frequently decide not to take a chance on Massachusetts -- or that men and women in other states, looking to make a new start in a new place, typically decide not to make it in Massachusetts.
Maybe fewer and fewer people want to call Massachusetts home not because of its oppressive winters but because of its oppressive and demoralizing political culture. In the state that produced Michael S. Dukakis and Sen. Kerry, the concerns of ordinary citizens are so often met with disdain, while the political class lets nothing get in the way of its own appetites and priorities. A state legislature that stays in session year-round? A supreme court that turns same-sex marriage into a constitutional right? Public "authorities" that answer to no one? In most of America, no way. In Massachusetts, no problem.
On Beacon Hill last week, the big issue for Massachusetts lawmakers was whether tuition should be reduced for illegal aliens at the state's public colleges. On Capitol Hill, the senior senator from Massachusetts was busy implying that Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. is a racist and a liar. Is it such a stretch to imagine that an awful lot of Americans look at Massachusetts and think: How can people stand to live there? Or that a fair number of Massachusetts residents eventually decide that they can't stand to live here?
This is a state in which a tax cut can be decisively approved by the voters yet never go into effect. In which grocers can be prosecuted for pricing milk too low. In which archaic blue laws decree when shops may and may not open for business. In which a $2 billion Big Dig ends up costing $14 billion. In which Ted Kennedy keeps getting reelected.
Is it really any wonder so many people are fleeing Massachusetts? Maybe the real mystery is why so many of us stay.