The Best and Worst Run States in America: A Survey of All 50

Print Email

26. Wisconsin
> Debt per capita:
$4,027 (15th highest)
> Credit rating (S&P/Moody’s): AA/Aa2
> Unemployment rate: 4.3% (16th lowest)
> Median household income: $52,622 (25th highest)
> Poverty rate: 13.2% (18th lowest)

After a four-month presidential bid by Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker, the state’s government and its finances have received national attention. Wisconsin, along with South Dakota, is one of just two states with a fully funded pension system. However, it is also one of seven states without a rainy day fund. In crafting the most recent budget, Walker introduced various cuts to education funding, including $250 million from the University of Wisconsin budget. While education is a key foundation of economic prosperity and the cuts are concerning, the consequence of the budget adjustments remains to be seen. Currently, the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree, at 28.4%, is lower than the national rate, while the percentage of adults with at least a high school diploma, at 92.5%, is the fifth highest nationwide.

27. Tennessee
> Debt per capita:
$945 (the lowest)
> Credit rating (S&P/Moody’s): AA+/Aaa
> Unemployment rate: 5.6% (14th highest)
> Median household income: $44,361 (6th lowest)
> Poverty rate: 18.3% (tied-7th highest)

Tennessee spends 39.4% of total annual expenditure on welfare, a larger percentage than in any state other than New York — and this spending may be somewhat necessary. Of all Tennessee residents, 18.3% live in poverty, higher than the 15.5% national poverty rate. Many impoverished residents likely rely on government assistance — 17.6% of Tennesseans receive food stamp benefits, the third highest share of any state population. Despite high welfare spending, benefits to those in need may not be as costly as in other states. According to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, the typical benefits package in Tennessee is worth just $17,413, less than in any state other than Mississippi. In fact, high-spending states often have high debt levels, and Tennessee has very little debt relative to its population. State debt totals just $945 per capita, the lowest in the nation.

28. Ohio
> Debt per capita:
$2,858 (20th lowest)
> Credit rating (S&P/Moody’s): AA+/Aa1
> Unemployment rate: 4.4% (19th lowest)
> Median household income: $49,308 (16th lowest)
> Poverty rate: 15.8% (20th highest)

Home to roughly 11.6 million people, Ohio is one of the most populous states in the country. Despite an extensive tax base, the state has relatively low tax revenue per capita. Ohio only collects about $2,373 per resident per year compared to $2,657 nationwide. One reason for this is relatively low incomes throughout the state. While the typical American household earns $53,657 annually, the median annual household income in Ohio is only $49,308. In addition, people have been leaving the state to live elsewhere faster than people are moving in. This has reduced the tax base and dragged down property values. From 2010 through 2014, home values in the Buckeye State declined by 3.9%, one of the sharpest such decreases in the country.

One area in which the state excels is putting its unemployed residents back to work. Only 27.9% of unemployment insurance recipients find work before their benefits expire, one of the lowest exhaustion rates in the nation.

29. Florida
> Debt per capita:
$1,905 (9th lowest)
> Credit rating (S&P/Moody’s): AAA/Aa1
> Unemployment rate: 5.1% (24th highest)
> Median household income: $47,463 (12th lowest)
> Poverty rate: 16.5% (16th highest)

Florida is still coping with the lingering effects of the housing crisis. The state leads the nation in foreclosures, for example, with one in every 43.6 housing units in some phase of the foreclosure process. On the other hand, home prices have rebounded recently, rising 6.1% from 2013 through last year, the seventh highest increase in the nation. Also, while Florida’s unemployment rate of 5.1% is not particularly high, the state’s unemployment insurance system is inadequate for many jobless residents. More than 62% of unemployment insurance claimants exhaust their benefits before finding a job, the highest exhaustion rate in the nation. In addition, just 12% of unemployed individuals even receive benefits, tied with South Carolina for the lowest recipiency rate in the country.

30. New York
> Debt per capita:
$6,888 (6th highest)
> Credit rating (S&P/Moody’s): AA+/Aa1
> Unemployment rate: 4.8% (23rd lowest)
> Median household income: $58,878 (16th highest)
> Poverty rate: 15.9% (19th highest)

The Empire State is in the top 10 for tax revenue per capita, collecting the equivalent of $3,731 per person, which is more than $1,000 higher than the corresponding U.S. figure. With a healthy tax base, governments can often run a state better than without such a base and achieve better outcomes. For example, a higher state tax revenue tends to correlate with higher educational attainment levels and lower poverty. New York, however, is a distinct exception. The state’s poverty and high school attainment rates are both worse than the national ones.