The Best and Worst Run States in America

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How well run is your state? It can be difficult to objectively assess the quality of a state’s management. The economy and standard of living can be affected by decisions made decades ago, forces outside the control of the state’s government and administrators, as well as the government's own actions.

Every year, 24/7 Wall St. tries to answer this question by conducting an extensive survey of every state. To determine how well states are managed, we examined their financial data, as well as the services they provide and their residents' standard of living. This year, North Dakota is the best-run state in the country for the second year in a row, while California is the worst-run for the third year in a row.

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Identifying appropriate criteria to compare the 50 states can be challenging because they vary so much. Some states have abundant natural resources, while others rely on services or innovation. A few have been burdened by struggling industries. Some are more rural, while others are more urban. Because of such differences, a spending or tax policy that can be beneficial in one state can be disastrous in another.

Many of the best-run states in the nation benefit from an abundance of natural resources. North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, and Texas, among the best-run states, are all among the states with the greatest concentration of GDP in the mining industry, which includes activities such as oil and natural gas extraction, as well as coal mining. The presence of this industry benefits states in several ways. North Dakota and Texas led the nation in real GDP growth in 2012, while Alaska has used its oil revenue to establish a permanent fund that pays residents an annual dividend.

The housing crisis has had a major negative impact on a number of the worst-run states. It caused a drastic decline in construction employment in states like Arizona, California, and Nevada. Many of these lost jobs have yet to be replaced. In the hardest-hit states, this has resulted not only in worsening unemployment, but increased poverty and budget shortfalls. Although the economies of these states have largely improved, the residual effects of the housing crisis remain.

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While these can be considered extenuating circumstances, the fact is that each state must deal with the cards it is dealt. Governments must plan for worst-case scenarios, including the collapse of an industry. Several resource-rich states have squandered their advantages and rank poorly on our list. Good governance involves raising and spending enough to provide for the well-being of the population without risking the state’s long-term stability.

To determine how well the states are run, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed hundreds of data sets from dozens of sources. We looked at each state’s debt, revenue, expenditure, and deficit to determine how well it was managed fiscally. We reviewed taxes, exports, and GDP growth, including a breakdown by sector, to identify how each state was managing its resources. We looked at poverty, income, unemployment, high school graduation, violent crime and foreclosure rates to assess the well-being of the state's residents.

While each state is different, the best-run states share certain characteristics, as do the worst run. For example, the populations of the worse-off states tended to have lower standards of living. Violent crime rates in these states were usually higher and residents were much less likely to have a high school diploma.

The worst-run states also tended to have weak fiscal management reflected in higher budget shortfalls and lower credit ratings by Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poors.

The better-run states tended to display stable fiscal management. Pensions were more likely to be fully funded, debt was lower, and budget deficits smaller. Credit ratings agencies also were much more likely to rate the well-run states favorably. Only two poorly run states received a perfect credit rating from either agency. California and Illinois, which are ranked worst and third worst, received the lowest ratings from both agencies.

The states that were well-managed also tended to have lower unemployment rates. Eight of the 10 states with the lowest unemployment rates ranked as the best-run states. California, Illinois, and Nevada -- the states with the highest unemployment rates as of 2012 -- were among the five worst-run states.

These are the best-run states in America.

1. North Dakota
> Debt per capita: $3,033 (20th lowest)
> Budget deficit: None
> Unemployment: 3.1% (the lowest)
> Median household income: $53,585 (19th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 11.2% (6th lowest)

North Dakota’s economic output has surged in the past few years, with GDP climbing 13.4% in 2012, well above the second-fastest growing state, Texas, whose GDP grew by 4.8% in 2012. The Peace Garden State has continued to reap the benefits of fracking in the oil-rich Bakken Shale formation, which accounted for about 90% of the state’s oil production in 2012. That year, nearly 10% of North Dakota’s total GDP was generated by the mining sector -- which includes crude petroleum and natural gas extraction -- more than five times the national rate. The state continued to have the nation’s lowest unemployment rate, at just 3.1% last year. Because of economic prosperity and the availability of jobs, North Dakota's population grew the most in the country between 2010 and 2012, increasing by 3.7%. This may partly explain recent spikes in property values. Home values in North Dakota skyrocketed 33.4% between 2007 and 2012, by far the largest increase nationally.

2. Wyoming
> Debt per capita: $2,409 (13th lowest)
> Budget deficit: None
> Unemployment: 5.4% (7th lowest)
> Median household income: $54,901 (17th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 12.6% (13th lowest)

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Wyoming was the nation’s largest producer of coal and the third-largest producer of natural gas in 2011. Mining accounted for 28% of the state’s GDP in 2012. Additionally, the Cowboy State has the nation’s best business tax climate, according to the Tax Foundation, due in part to the lack of corporate or individual income tax. Together, these factors may have contributed to the state’s healthy economy, which featured low unemployment and foreclosure rates as of 2012. The state’s population is also well-educated. Nearly 92% of adults over 25 years old had a high school diploma last year, better than all but a handful of states. Despite the many positive factors, the state's GDP growth was weak last year, growing at just 0.2%.

3. Iowa
> Debt per capita: $2,478 (15th lowest)
> Budget deficit: 2.5% (41st largest)
> Unemployment: 5.2% (tied-5th lowest)
> Median household income: $50,957 (23rd highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 12.7% (14th lowest)

Agriculture and related industries accounted for 6.7% of Iowa’s GDP last year, six times the national rate. Like many well-run states, it has a perfect credit rating from both Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s. Additionally, while home values across the nation fell by more than 10% between 2007 and 2012, in Iowa they increased considerably -- by 7.1% -- over that time. Also, Iowa's unemployment rate and underemployment rate -- which includes the unemployed, discouraged workers, and those who work but want to work more -- were both among the lowest in the nation last year, at 5.2% and 10%, respectively. Iowa’s budget shortfall in fiscal 2012 was under 3%, one of the smallest budget gaps in the country.

4. Nebraska
> Debt per capita: $1,277 (2nd lowest)
> Budget deficit: 4.8% (38th largest)
> Unemployment: 3.9% (2nd lowest)
> Median household income: $50,723 (25th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 13.0% (16th lowest)

Nebraska received strong scores for its fiscal management, with a perfect credit rating from Standard & Poor’s and extremely low debt as of fiscal 2011. The state’s pension plans were well-funded relative to most other states. Nebraska also faced a total budget shortfall of just 4.8% in fiscal 2012, one of the smaller deficits in the country. Nebraska’s unemployment rate was just 3.9% last year, less than any other state except for North Dakota. The Cornhusker State also had an underemployment rate of just 8.8%, the third lowest in the country. Nebraska also performed well in several measures that reflect quality of life. The state’s violent crime and poverty rates were lower than the national rates in 2012, while a higher percentage of residents had health insurance, and a high proportion of adults were high school graduates.

5. Utah
> Debt per capita: $2,577 (17th lowest)
> Budget deficit: 8.2% (32nd largest)
> Unemployment: 5.7% (tied-10th lowest)
> Median household income: $57,049 (13th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 12.8% (15th lowest)

By several measures, Utah had one of the stronger economies in the country in 2012. The state ranked fifth in exports per capita, and GDP growth was among the highest. The unemployment rate was just 5.7%, compared to a national rate of 8.1%. According to the Tax Foundation, Utah has one of the most business-friendly tax policies in the country. The state’s residents also have a relatively good quality of life. The state was among America’s safest last year, with just 205.8 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. Educational attainment was also strong, with 91% of residents over the age of 25 holding a high school diploma. The state received the top credit rating from both Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s, with the latter reasoning that Utah has responsible fiscal management and strong economic fundamentals.

These are the worst-run states in America.

46. Nevada
> Debt per capita: $1,548 (6th lowest)
> Budget deficit: 37.0% (2nd largest)
> Unemployment: 11.1% (the highest)
> Median household income: $49,760 (24th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 16.4% (19th highest)

Nevada was arguably the hardest hit state during the collapse of the housing bubble. Home values fell by more than 50% between 2007 and 2012, the largest decline in the country. And years after it started, Nevada is still reeling from the housing crisis. The state had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country last year, at one in every 37 homes. The 2012 unemployment rate of 11.1% was the worst in the country. The state’s violent crime rate of 607.6 incidents for every 100,000 residents was worse than all but one other state. The state also suffers from low health insurance coverage. More than 22% of the population was without health coverage in 2012, worse than any other state except for Texas. This rate may improve in 2013. The state opted to provide its own health insurance exchange site rather than rely on the widely criticized national exchange site, According to the Las Vegas Sun, the state’s health care exchange site has been functioning relatively smoothly and hasn’t received the same kind of criticism as the national site.

47. Rhode Island
> Debt per capita: $8,721 (3rd highest)
> Budget deficit: 6.9% (35th largest)
> Unemployment: 10.4% (3rd highest)
> Median household income: $54,554 (18th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 13.7% (tied-20th lowest)

Rhode Island had more debt per resident than any other state except for Alaska and Massachusetts as of fiscal 2011. Although its budget shortfall was relatively small in fiscal 2012, the state currently faces unplanned expenses and may have to revise its budget, according to The Providence Journal. Moody’s cited the state’s eight consecutive years of budget gaps as part of its justification for its relatively poor credit rating. In an attempt to improve funding levels, the state reformed its pension program in 2011, turning its pensions into hybrids with 401(k)-like features, as well as suspending both cost-of-living adjustments and benefit increases. Still, as of last year, the state had funded just over 58% of its pension obligations, compared to a 72.4% average across all states.

48. Illinois
> Debt per capita: $5,041 (11th highest)
> Budget deficit: 18.5% (9th largest)
> Unemployment: 8.9% (10th highest)
> Median household income: $55,137 (16th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 14.7% (tied-24th lowest)

Illinois has the worst credit rating in the U.S., having received the lowest rating of any state from both Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s. Explaining its reasoning, Moody’s pointed to the state’s underfunded pension and ongoing weak fiscal practices such as bill payment delays. Only 40.4% of the state's pension obligations were funded in 2012, the worst rate in the nation. Illinois also had the fourth-largest debt in the country at the end of fiscal 2011 at nearly $65 billion. The state faced high foreclosure and unemployment rates in 2012, both among the worst in the country.

49. New Mexico
> Debt per capita: $3,914 (21st highest)
> Budget deficit: 8.3% (31st largest)
> Unemployment: 6.9% (tied-19th lowest)
> Median household income: $42,558 (6th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 20.8% (2nd highest)

New Mexico ranked this year as the second worst-run state in the country, scoring better than California by only a small margin. One measure that helped put it above California was its credit rating. Standard & Poor’s rates the state AA+, and Moody’s gives it a perfect Aaa rating. The state’s debt load relative to its size was average, and its budget shortfall of 8.3% for going into fiscal 2012 was better than many states. Outside of fiscal management, however, New Mexico performed poorly in several areas in several areas. The state was among the worst 10 nationwide for violent crime, high school graduation rates among adults, and health insurance coverage. More than one in five residents lived below the poverty line in 2012, worse than all states but Mississippi. Last year, state GDP grew by just 0.2%, worse than all but a handful of states.

50. California
> Debt per capita: $3,990 (20th highest)
> Budget deficit: 27.8% (3rd largest)
> Unemployment: 10.5% (2nd highest)
> Median household income: $58,328 (11th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 17.0% (18th highest)

For the third year in a row, California is the worst-run state in America. California faced a nearly $24 billion in budget shortfall in fiscal 2012, including a mid-year shortfall of $930 million and $8.2 billion carried over from the year before. California carries an A credit rating from Standard & Poor's, and an A1 from Moody’s -- both worse than any other state except for Illinois. Explaining its rating, Moody’s pointed to the state’s history of one-time solutions to resolve its budgetary gaps. It also noted the state's “highly volatile revenue structure,” due to its over reliance on wealthy taxpayers. The Golden State was also among the worst states in the nation for educational attainment, health coverage, and unemployment.

How did your state do? Click here for the full list of the best- and worst-run states.


24/7 Wall St. considered data from a number of sources, including Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s Investors Service the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), the U.S. Census Bureau, the Tax Foundation, RealtyTrac, The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), and the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities (CBPP).

Unemployment data was taken from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Credit ratings were from ratings agencies Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investors Service. We relied on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for violent crime rate by state. RealtyTrac provided foreclosure rates. Pension figures are from Morningstar.

A significant amount of the data we used came from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Data from ACS included percentage of residents below the poverty line, high school completion rates for residents 25 and older, median household income, the percentage of the population without health insurance and median home values from both 2007 and 2012.

Once we reviewed the sources and compiled the final metrics, we ranked each state based on its performance in all the categories. Most figures are for 2012. Debt per capita, obtained from the Tax Foundation, and state budgetary data, which came from the U.S. Census Bureau, are for fiscal year 2011. Figures from the CBPP are for the fiscal year 2012. Credit ratings and the Tax Foundation’s rankings for business tax climate are based on the most recently available publications.

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