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

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Charleston, West Virginia

41. West Virginia
> Debt per capita: $4,331 (14th highest)
> 2015 Unemployment rate: 6.7% (tied-the highest)
> Credit rating: Aa1/AA-
> Poverty: 17.9% (7th highest)

Amid declining tax revenue, West Virginia faces an $87 million revenue shortfall. As a result, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last month ordered $11 million in spending cuts across the state’s public school districts. Spending cuts underscore a number of the state’s other economic challenges.

West Virginia’s annual unemployment rate of 6.7% is the second highest of all states. A high jobless rate accompanies weak economic growth. Last year, West Virginia’s GDP expanded by 0.1%, the slowest positive growth of any state. Poor economic conditions in the state are not likely to attract highly educated residents. Only 19.6% of adults in West Virginia have at least a bachelor’s degree, the smallest share of any state.

Pennsylvania State Capitol, Harrisburg

42. Pennsylvania
> Debt per capita: $3,716 (20th highest)
> 2015 Unemployment rate: 5.1% (tied-25th lowest)
> Credit rating: Aa3/AA-
> Poverty: 13.2% (21st lowest)

Pennsylvania’s reserve coffers comprise just 0.2% of the state’s total expenditures for the 2017 fiscal year, nearly the smallest rainy day fund of any state. According to analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Pennsylvania’s rainy day fund could finance the state’s operations for just about three days, less than any state other than Arkansas. Pennsylvania’s pension is also underfunded. The state has just 59.6% of the assets it needs to fund its future pension obligations, the fifth least of any state. Likely due in part to poor fiscal management, Pennsylvania has a AA- rating and a negative outlook from S&P.

Pennsylvania’s labor market is also not doing especially well. The state’s October unemployment rate of 5.4% is up from the same time the year before when unemployment was at 4.8%.

Trenton, New Jersey

43. New Jersey
> Debt per capita: $7,378 (5th highest)
> 2015 Unemployment rate: 5.6% (tied-19th highest)
> Credit rating: A2/A-
> Poverty: 10.8% (8th lowest)

New Jersey has among the smallest reserve funds of any state. According to analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts, New Jersey would be able to operate just eight full days with its budget reserves alone, less than a third of the average across all states. New Jersey also has just 42.5% of the assets it needs to meet its future pension obligations, nearly the smallest share of any state. Credit ratings agency S&P recently downgraded New Jersey’s bonds from A to A-, nearly the worst rating in the country. The agency cited the underfunded pension as one of the main reasons for the downgrade as well as the recently announced tax cut.

The tax cuts, which will amount to an estimated $1.4 billion in lost revenue a year by 2021, have been criticized as politically expedient and financially irresponsible as New Jersey struggles to balance its budget. New Jersey’s credit rating has been downgraded 10 times under Gov. Chris Christie, more than any other governor in U.S. history.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

44. Louisiana
> Debt per capita: $4,067 (16th highest)
> 2015 Unemployment rate: 6.3% (6th highest)
> Credit rating: Aa3/AA
> Poverty: 19.6% (3rd highest)

With abundant crude oil and natural gas reserves as well as several of the nation’s largest ports, Louisiana’s annual exports totalled $10,530 per capita in 2015, the second highest of all states after Washington. Louisiana is one of the 10 largest crude oil producers in the nation, and more crude oil is shipped to the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port from foreign nations than to any other U.S. port.

Despite the presence and exploitation of natural resources, Louisiana’s population struggles with high poverty, low educational attainment, and high violent crime. Nearly two in every five state residents live in poverty, the third highest poverty rate of all states. Just 84.6% of adults have a high school diploma, and 23.2% have at least a bachelor’s degree, each among the lowest attainment rates of all states. Also, there were 540 violent crimes reported for every 100,000 residents last year, the fifth highest violent crime rate.

Frankfort, Kentucky

45. Kentucky
> Debt per capita: $3,351 (22nd highest)
> 2015 Unemployment rate: 5.4% (tied-22nd highest)
> Credit rating: Aa2/A+
> Poverty: 18.5% (tied-5th highest)

While Kentucky’s 2015 unemployment rate of 5.4% was in line with the national rate, the state’s labor force shrunk by 5.0% between 2011 and 2015, the second largest labor force contraction of all states. The average unemployment insurance claimant receives benefits for 18.7 weeks, the second longest of all states and an indication that it is difficult to find a job once out of work in Kentucky. Kentuckians are also considerably more likely to live in poverty than people in other states — the state’s poverty rate of 18.5% is tied as the fifth highest.

Based on the state’s foreclosure rate of 1 in every 236 housing units, Kentucky’s housing market is doing relatively well. Home values are low, however. While the median home value in the state grew by 7.8% between 2011 and 2015, this was much less than the national increase of 12.0%. The current median home value of $130,000 remains among the lowest of all states.