Statistically Significant

Illustrations By Travis Foster


Massachusetts made headlines in late December as the only state in the US to lose population two years in a row, according to estimates by the Census Bureau. The 2004 decreases—2005 estimates for individual cities and towns have not been released yet—were greatest in Boston and in the Berkshires, but those two areas have lost people even when the state as a whole has gained. Are there local bellwethers of population growth (or loss) in Massachusetts?

Using formulas too complicated to explain here, the Census Bureau identified six communities with populations of more than 20,000 that, in its estimation, hit a wall in 2004 and, like the state as a whole, lost residents after six decades of steady growth: Acton, Barnstable, Leominster, Mansfield, Taunton, and Yarmouth. Think of them as canaries in the population-count coal mine.

Sticking with harder numbers from the decennial censuses, the towns of Hanson, Hudson, and Wareham make the best population bellwethers. They are the only three communities that came within one percentage point of the statewide population growth in the 10 years leading up to 1990 and 2000 (4.9 percent and 5.5 percent, respectively). Looking over a longer period, Hatfield was the only community to mirror the state with a jump of more than 10 percent in 1970 and single-digit increases in 1960, 1980, 1990, and 2000.

As for anti-bellwethers, one strong candidate is Chelsea, whose population dropped 30 percent from 1940 through 1990 (when the state as a whole rose by 39 percent), then jumped by 22 percent during the ’90s (when the state rose by only 6 percent). Similarly, the cities of Everett, Haverhill, and Lynn suffered losses during the state’s last double-digit boom, during the ’60s, and rebounded to outpace the state’s anemic growth three decades later. Urban renewal, it seems, has many benefits, but presaging statewide growth is not one of them.


Perusing the list of most-Googled Web sites in 2005 turned up by the search word “Massachusetts,” we noticed the Massachusetts Snake Page ( in eighth place, not far below more obvious winners such as and the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Presumably, many of the site’s visitors have encountered the creatures (snakes, not state employees) in their yards or houses—often around March, when snakes come out of hibernation to mate and loll around in the sun. Well, the UMass–Amherst faculty who run the site want everyone to calm down.

“The regularity with which people kill a snake first and ask questions later might lead you to believe that the world is overrun with poisonous snakes,” they write. But only two of the state’s 14 species are venomous (the timber rattlesnake and northern copperhead), the Snake Page reports, and both are “rare” and “reclusive.” The most populous is the common garter snake, which likes shrubbery and sidewalks but is generally “harmless.” The site will, rather grudgingly, tell you how to keep it out of your house, but advises against a zero-tolerance policy outside: “Unless you really want to surround yourself with a boring, uninviting landscape, it is much easier to live with an occasional snake in the yard.”


It appears that most Massachusetts residents need at least six years of drinking (legally) before they take a spouse. Census data released last fall show that the median age of Bay State residents getting married for the first time was 27.4 for women and 29.1 for men (when their hair begins to thin?) during the four-year period from 2000 through 2003. For both categories, those figures were the highest in the US; the national average is 25.1 for women and 26.7 for men.

That Bay Staters wait so long to get married may have something to do with our annual divorce rate, which is the lowest in the country —2.4 breakups per 1,000 people, according to 2001 Census data. Divorce magazine reports that in 1997 the median age of a first divorce in the US was 29 for women and 31 for men. So maybe we’re just more likely to skip that first, ill-advised marriage.

Or maybe it’s that people who marry in Massachusetts split up after they move elsewhere. The divorce rate in New Hampshire—which attracts thousands of young families who can’t afford a home in the Bay State—is 5.0 per 1,000, more than twice as high as ours and significantly higher than the national rate of 3.9.


Presumably their intent was not to make the jobs of narcotics investigators easier, but NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) recently released data showing that Martha’s Vineyard leads the state in arrests for possessing or selling marijuana. With a weed-related arrest rate of 310 per 100,000 people in 2002 (the last year that national FBI data are available), Dukes County easily beat Boston’s Suffolk County, which had an arrest rate of 225, for first place. Oddly, the state’s other big island, Nantucket County, reported no marijuana arrests at all in 2002. Sprawling Middlesex County was last among jurisdictions in pinching pot-users, with an arrest rate of 102.

Among age and gender groups, 18-year-old men were on top, with an arrest rate of 387, far above the statewide rate of 20 per 100,000. Women over 60 were either abstemious or discreet, with no arrests at all from that demographic group.


For the second consecutive year, Massachusetts has finished first in the Beacon Hill Institute’s annual State Competitiveness Report. The Suffolk University–based research organization concluded in December that we are “the state best poised for economic growth,” due to such factors as a highly skilled workforce, the availability of venture capital for new businesses, and high levels of research-and-development spending—offsetting such disadvantages as high energy costs and long commuting times.

Still, the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, DC–based think tank focused on “research and ideas for working people,” last year released a report blasting all the think tanks that rank the 50 states by business climate. Grading Places concludes: “It is precisely because the competitiveness indexes produced by the ideological think tanks are aimed at promoting particular kinds of legislation that they do a poor job of predicting state economic growth: The measures used must pass an ideology screen, so the validity and relevance criteria go by the wayside.”

The EPI cites Massachusetts as a prime example of how the same state can get wildly different marks—generally positive from organizations that stress education levels and negative from those that focus on the costs of living and doing business. In 2004-05, in addition to ranking first in the Beacon Hill Institute survey, Massachusetts ranked 13th on the Cato Institute’s Fiscal Policy Report Card; 33rd on the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index; and 41st on both the Small Business Entrepreneurial Council’s Survival Index and the Pacific Research Institute’s Economic Freedom Index.


Our population of students from abroad continued to drop slightly last year as well. According to the Institute of International Education, there were 27,985 foreign students enrolled at area colleges and universities in the 2004-05 school year, a drop of 2.3 percent from the year before. That was not as dramatic as the 4.7 percent drop in 2003-04, but we still fell faster than the US as a whole. Nationwide, there was a drop of only 1.3 percent, compared with a 2.4 percent decrease in 2003-04. The IEE estimates that foreign students spend $868 million per year in the Bay State.

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Boston University had the largest contingent of foreign students (4,541), followed by Harvard University and MIT. Statewide, the number of foreign students from Japan more than doubled (from 1,781 to 4,187)—pushing that country ahead of China and India, both of which sent significantly fewer students to study here last year.

Though the IEE does not yet have figures for last year, it estimated that 8,284 Bay State residents were studying abroad in 2003-04.