Election likely to exacerbate Massachusetts’s regional inequities

By Upstateherd (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jazmyn Gray
Boston University Statehouse Program

If this year’s ballot is any indication, Massachusetts’ ongoing battle with regional inequity has only become more serious as western and central parts of the state struggle to overcome a declining population and a lack of representation in statewide offices. 

On the brink of a potentially historic election for Massachusetts, the commonwealth is forced to confront its longstanding inability to equitably provide for the westernmost parts of the state. After simmering below the surface for years, the state’s continued struggle can be found front and center on this year’s ballot, in which no candidates from western or central Massachusetts are up for one of the six statewide elected offices.

“Legislators have to start showing up,” said former Democratic Sen. Benjamin Downing, a Pittsfield native. “I think it’s really easy, and it’s probably true of anywhere. But it’s that much more true for Western Mass.”

According to the election statistics data collected and published by the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 11 candidates are running for the six statewide offices on the ballot this November. Of those candidates, none live further west than Middlesex County. Interstate 495, which is often considered the gateway to central Massachusetts, runs through the northwesternmost part of Middlesex. 

Charles Stewart III, a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT and founder of the school’s Election Data and Science Lab, said this issue has been brewing ever since western Massachusetts failed to keep up with the rest of the state’s population growth during the early 2000s. 

“There’s a simple and logical way to think about this issue,” he said. “And that reason is that political power tends to flow to where the people are. The people in Massachusetts are in the eastern part of the state now. So, it’s going to put western Massachusetts at a particular disadvantage.”

For years, Census data has shown the commonwealth’s center shifting eastward. Approximately half of the state’s population lived east of Natick in Middlesex County at the time of the 2020 Census. However, after next month’s election, eastern Massachusetts-based representatives will control 100% of the statewide positions on Beacon Hill. This figure excludes the Governor’s Council, which is decided by each district.

The state’s funding decisions reveal the true impact of only having legislators from eastern Massachusetts. According to Downing, Beacon Hill’s tendency to distribute resources on a per capita basis could actually exacerbate disparities in rural communities. 

“People think it’s fair, and that’s understandable logic,” Downing said. “But, if you say, ‘Alright, we’re gonna have one Office of Health and Human Services for every 500,000 people,’ you’re telling me that someone in Greater Boston has to ride a bus for 30 or 45 minutes to get there. Whereas, somebody in North Adams is looking at an hour-and-a-half ride if they have a car. And, if they’re relying on transit, they’re looking at a couple of hours to access the same service. So, I think it’s important for people to have that perspective.”

Data collected by the Massachusetts Office of the Comptroller shows that most of the government’s cherry sheet and non-cherry sheet payments last fiscal year correlated with county populations. Named for the cherry-colored paper on which it was originally printed, the cherry sheet is the official notification from the Commissioner of Revenue of the upcoming fiscal year’s state aid and assessments to cities, towns, and regional school districts.

According to 2020 Census data, Middlesex is the largest county in Massachusetts with 1.6 million residents. It received more than $1.9 billion in total government payments last fiscal year, the greatest amount of any Massachusetts county. 

When compared to population data pulled from the 2020 Census, Middlesex’s cherry sheet and non-cherry sheet payments break down to equal approximately $1,200 per resident. Some counties, such as Nantucket, received as much as $2,800 per resident. While others, including Barnstable, received approximately $900 per resident. But Nantucket received the least amount of total funding, correlating with its small population size. 

Located in Suffolk County, Boston has the largest population of any individual town or city in Massachusetts. The same data set from the Office of the Comptroller revealed that Boston, alone, received more than 10% of the state’s cherry sheet and non-cherry sheet payments last fiscal year. 

“If you think about cities like North Adams and Pittsfield – Holyoke and Greenfield – all of those communities have just about all of the same challenges that Boston has,” Downing said. “But they have much less by way of resources.” 

This lack of resources can have an impact on several facets of community development as well. Just last year, for example, the Office of the State Auditor released a study showing that western Massachusetts suffered from inadequate government support to maintain and develop public infrastructure. As a result, the auditor promised to launch a “rural rescue plan” that will eventually increase government infrastructure spending on the underserved communities.  

Stewart said he credits Boston’s control of state resources to the overwhelming “media and economic pull” the city holds over the state. Echoing that statement, Downing said his perfect solution for increasing regional equity in Massachusetts would involve moving the state capital to a more central location, like Springfield.

“It’s warped our political debate,” he said. “In Massachusetts, the most populous city is also the state capital is also the major media market. I think that leads to a real over-focus on the – understandable – needs, challenges and opportunities in Greater Boston. But it also makes it tougher for the unique needs, challenges and opportunities of, in particular, smaller cities and towns in Western and Central Mass. to be met.” 

Centralizing the capital is only one of the ways Downing said the state could potentially meet the needs of western and central Massachusetts-based residents. More than anything, he said, it’s critical that regional and state representatives “show up” to work closely with all of their constituents, making sure the voices of western and eastern Massachusetts are heard regardless of where the capital is located. 

“I think it’s one thing to academically understand the perspective,” Downing said. “It’s a whole other thing to have grown up there and know what it feels like to feel like you’re in a region in the state that is, too often, at best, an afterthought, which is especially frustrating given the incredible opportunities that these communities present.”

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