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Massachusetts shouldn't panic at the latest report from the US Census estimating that more people are leaving the state than coming in; the full story is not quite as alarming as it seems. Still, the trend is dangerous and demands attention.
The numbers suggest Massachusetts suffered a net loss of 42,000 people a year on average from 2000 to 2004. Only New York State fared worse in the survey. But the Census only counted people moving among the 50 states, not immigrants moving into Massachusetts from other countries. In past years, immigration has compensated for much of the population loss in the state, and many immigrants are highly skilled professionals here on specialty visas.
Also, population gains in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and southern Maine are partly attributed to Boston's expanding footprint -- people who are still employed in Massachusetts but moving to Boston's far ''suburbs" to seek lower home prices. Of course, extreme commutes and exurban sprawl are symptoms of one of the state's biggest barriers to growth: unsustainably high home prices.
The Census figures can be disputed at the margins, but the report tolls a warning bell echoed by the Boston Foundation, the Rappaport Institute, MassINC, the Chamber of Commerce, and others in the civic and business community who track such trends. All find essentially the same thing: Too many Massachusetts residents, especially young families and professionals who came to the Boston area to get their college degrees, are leaving for states with more attractive ''climates" -- and that doesn't just mean more temperate winters.
The high cost of living in Massachusetts, especially housing, fuel, insurance, and certain taxes, is a familiar culprit. The high-paying jobs needed to match the high costs are increasingly scarce, especially in high-tech and financial services. Job competition from other states is fierce. The state's private universities are the best in the world, but are facing fresh competition. Meanwhile, state and community colleges lag those in other states badly, and the state's investment in them is lacking. Public grade schools perpetuate the cycle: Most that are of consistently high quality are in towns with exorbitant housing and property taxes.
The state has staked its future on the life sciences, which Massachusetts is uniquely positioned to excel in because of the healthcare and educational institutions here. But life science, like defense before it, is heavily dependent on funding from the federal government, at least for now. The state needs to diversify its portfolio of thriving economic sectors.
Beyond pocketbook issues, a set of intangibles helps create an unflattering overall impression of Massachusetts: a culture many see as smug and unfriendly to newcomers; a reserved, change-averse business community; an opaque and at times corrupt political bureaucracy. Or, in the words of a recent Boston Foundation analysis: ''Old, cold, expensive, unwelcoming, and a difficult place to get things done."
Obviously, this is not the ''brand" Massachusetts wants to promote. In many ways it is competing in a mortal struggle with another, equally applicable perception of the state: youthful, innovative, intellectually stimulating, physically beautiful, and socially progressive.
Which of these two images prevails in the public mind is more than just a matter of marketing; real policies are needed to help lower the cost of living, encourage job growth, and give residents more value for the premium they do pay to live here. Fortunately, there has been some recent movement on that front. The groundbreaking new healthcare law should eventually reduce insurance costs, and the statewide ''smart growth" incentives will encourage housing development without despoiling the state's natural beauty. Both legislative initiatives involved many stakeholders and crossed party lines to get passed.
After the Census study was released, the Globe's website, Boston.com, posted a message board where readers could sound off on why people might choose to leave the state. Replies came in from Texas, North Carolina, and Florida bragging that the grass was greener and the houses bigger in the South. There was the expected quotient of complaints about Ted Kennedy and gay marriage. But most were thoughtful reflections on the balance between these two warring images.
Some examples: ''It's a toss-up between a comfortable life living around strip malls and chains, or having little, but having heritage and culture." Or ''Families (especially young) who in the past would graduate from one of MA fine colleges can no longer afford to start life in this area unless their parents are supplementing."
Many respondents also mentioned the intangibles: ''We are wayyy [sic] too uptight and self-centered. I went down and visited my dad in Florida and had to get used to strangers actually saying 'hello' when they walked by me on the street."
What was most striking was the almost heartbreaking tone behind some of the postings, a love for Massachusetts and a deep yearning to stay here if only the cost weren't so great. Perhaps this message summed it up best: ''Friends of mine [in other states] all ask why I continue to stay here. In the past my answer has been: Proximity to beaches, mountains, lakes, and a great city with franchises in every major sport, fine dining, and a great arts culture. . . . Those reasons are becoming harder and harder to justify, though. Too crowded and expensive to enjoy much of what MA has to offer."
These comments may not be a representative sampling. But they suggest people are not fleeing Massachusetts; they are almost desperately looking for a reason to stay. The state's civic and political leaders need to work harder to give them some