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At a loss

A litany of woes, from taxes to high cost of housing, is driving many residents out of Massachusetts, and the state is struggling to woo others to come here, report says


Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David Abel
Globe Staff / May 18, 2008

Massachusetts is losing many of its native sons and daughters to other states and is having a harder time attracting transplants than the vast majority of the country.

Only about 64 percent of those born in Massachusetts still live in the state, according to a report by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies, which says it has compiled the most comprehensive data so far about the loss of state residents.

More than 2.2 million natives of Massachusetts now live elsewhere in the country, while 1.2 million people from other states live here. Massachusetts is the country's ninth worst in attracting residents from other states, the study shows. It ranked 48th in terms of losing residents to other states.

"The problem is that we just can't get people to come to Massachusetts as much as they want to leave," said Andrew Sum, the center's director and author of the report. "We need to start asking what we can do to make Massachusetts a more desirable place to live, why people don't want to come here to live."

Between 2000 and 2007, only Louisiana - which saw thousands flee after Hurricane Katrina - and New York lost more residents to other states, according to the report. More than 300,000 residents - about 5 percent of the state's population - left Massachusetts during that time, while the state's fertility rate ranked 46 out of 50 states.

Immigrants have kept the Bay State's population from declining. The state's population increased just 1.4 percent between 2000 and 2007, and there are now more than 1 million residents here who were born in another country.

Those who left Massachusetts say they are repelled by the cold, the high price of housing, the taxes - in essence, everything from the long, traffic-clogged commutes to the deep blue hue of the state's politics.

Kevin and Meg Buckingham wanted to raise their children near family and friends in Massachusetts, but they couldn't afford to stay. The Buckinghams, both of them 28, met at Westfield State College, married, and rented in Brookline, Natick, and Acton. Both had good jobs - he is an accountant, and she worked in alumnae relations at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences - but the house they wanted was out of reach.

Last year, the couple moved to Knightdale, N.C., where they built a 2,000 square foot, four-bedroom house for $171,000. Warmer weather and shorter commutes were other perks.

"There was no way we could ever do that in Massachusetts; the only thing we could find with the same amenities and the same room was for more than $1 million in Newton," Meg Buckingham said in a telephone interview. "Then there was the commute," which she said could take as long as two hours, on a commuter train, from her home in Acton to downtown Boston.

The report details the state's litany of woes in keeping its working population: Between 2004 and 2006, the state saw a net loss of 120,000 residents between the ages 16 to 65. Of those, nearly 44,000 had some college education, another 20,000 had an associate's or bachelor's degree, and more than 27,000 had master's degree or higher.

The study also found that the loss of workers spanned the spectrum of jobs: In 2006, 533,882 workers had left Massachusetts, including 50,558 managers and 78,848 office administrators. It also lost 78,316 salesmen, 34,992 construction workers and 31,746 food preparers and servers, according to the study.

"We have a real worry about where the workers to sustain the economy are going to come from," said Paul S. Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which commissioned the report. "The loss of residents matters very much, because we need the population and talent level to keep the area vital and to ensure we have the public and private investment needed."

Grogan and others blame the loss of residents on the state's rising housing prices, loss of jobs, and its failure to market itself to residents of other states.

"We have a terrible reputation as not being business friendly," Grogan said. "We have to make substantive changes and not suggest that marketing ourselves is beneath us. We have to shake ourselves out of our complacency."

Mark A. Sullivan Jr., executive director of Citizens for Citizens, an antipoverty agency in Fall River, said he sees the loss of residents in the number of vacant apartments and empty storefronts around Fall River.

He has two children in college and doesn't expect them to stay in Massachusetts. "There just aren't enough jobs," he said.

Officials in Governor Deval Patrick's administration say they are working to give residents more reasons to stay.

Since the administration took power in 2007, the state has gained 20,000 jobs, the average price of single-family homes has dropped about 10 percent, and the governor has proposed spending more than $2 billion to upgrade the state's public college and university system, said Dan O'Connell, secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

He said improving state colleges is vital to retaining residents because about 60 percent of students who attend state schools take their first jobs in Massachusetts, while less than 30 percent of those at private institutions stay for their first jobs.

"We're looking forward, not backward," Sullivan said. "The challenge is not to look at the historical numbers but to devise the programs that will retain the individuals in the Commonwealth."

But for some of those who have left, it's hard to imagine returning.

Cindy Homer grew up in East Boston, went to Anna Maria College in Paxton, left the state for a while and returned in 1988 to live in Salem. But she and her husband couldn't cope with all the congestion and relative inflation. The 55-year-old mother of three now lives in a 2,500 square foot home in New Mexico for which she paid $160,000.

"I love the people and the scenery and the seasons and the ocean, food, and cultural activities in Massachusetts," Homer said. "You have everything there that anyone could possibly want, but the cost of living is outrageous."

Others are less concerned about the cost of living than they are about the left-leaning politics of Massachusetts. Derek Hoskins, 34, prefers to spend $650 in gas a month to commute from his home in Rindge, N.H., to his office in Northborough. He doesn't want to bother with the taxes, gun laws, and other regulations that distinguish life in Massachusetts from New Hampshire.

"When I drive across the border into New Hampshire, I feel as if a weight has been taken off my shoulders," said Hoskins, who moved from Fitchburg last year. "I no longer have a state government that wants to dictate what I do."

Yet, some would return if they could.

Ann Ellison, 65, lived in Massachusetts until her apartment building in Charlestown was sold about 10 years ago. She looked around the area for an apartment with the same $700 rent, but the closest she could find was in Central Falls, R.I.

"I didn't feel like moving, but I couldn't find any place that didn't take most of my income," said Ellison, who continues to commute to her job in Cambridge. "I miss the restaurants, the supermarkets and stores. There are a lot of things I miss. I just can't afford it."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

MEG, SON JAKE, AND KEVIN BUCKINGHAM | Moved From Acton To Knightdale, N.C.

After years of renting in three Massachusetts communities, the couple last year built a 2,000-square-foot, four-bedroom house in North Carolina for $171,000. "There was no way we could do that in Massachusetts," Meg said.

ANN ELLISON | MOVED FROM CHARLESTOWN TO CENTRAL FALLS, R.I.

Central Falls was the closest Ellison could find for the same $700 rent she was paying before her apartment building was sold 10 years ago. "I didn't feel like moving, but I couldn't find any place that didn't take most of my income," she said.

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