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

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Topeka, Kansas

31. Kansas
> Debt per capita: $2,316 (15th lowest)
> 2015 Unemployment rate: 4.2% (tied-13th lowest)
> Credit rating: Aa2/AA-
> Poverty: 13.0% (20th lowest)

For the second time in two years, credit rating agency S&P downgraded Kansas’ credit rating. Only three states now have a lower rating than the AA- grade that S&P has given Kansas. The ratings agency cited the state’s structural budget problems as the primary reason for the downgrade.

Many blame the state’s budget problems on policies implemented by Gov. Sam Brownback, who relied heavily on tax cuts to spur the state economy. Kansas collected an average of $2,519 in tax revenue per capita in 2014, less than the majority of states. Brownback’s cuts have left many services underfunded. Only 67% of the state pension is funded, less than the 75% average across all states.

Nashville Tennessee downtown skyline at Shelby Street Bridge

32. Tennessee
> Debt per capita: $917 (the lowest)
> 2015 Unemployment rate: 5.8% (14th highest)
> Credit rating: Aaa/AAA
> Poverty: 16.7% (10th highest)

Tennessee’s tax revenue is only $1,789 per capita, nearly the lowest of any state in the country. Despite a limited revenue stream, the state has minimal debt and receives top credit ratings from both Moody’s and S&P. Tennessee’s debt of only $917 per capita is the lowest of any state. The state is also one of only a few to have a nearly fully funded pension system.

While the state’s 4.9% unemployment rate is in line with the jobless rate nationwide, unemployed workers in Tennessee likely face greater financial hardship than most unemployed Americans. The average weekly unemployment insurance payment in Tennessee is only $228, nearly the lowest in the country and over $100 less than the national average.

Albany, New York 2

33. New York
> Debt per capita: $6,892 (6th highest)
> 2015 Unemployment rate: 5.3% (23rd highest)
> Credit rating: Aa1/AA+
> Poverty: 15.4% (tied-17th highest)

New York has a long history of corruption, going back as far as the days of Tammany Hall in New York City. Over the past 10 years alone, more than 30 separate lawmakers working in Albany, the state capital, have been fined or jailed for corruption, including former Gov. David Paterson, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Corruption can hinder an government’s effectiveness, but it is impossible to tell the extent to which the state’s integrity issues led to its relatively high government debt as well as the state’s relatively small rainy day fund, equal to just 2.5% of the state’s annual expenditure.

One positive state attribute is the strength of its economic output. The state’s GDP per capita of $63,929 is fourth highest of any state. The typical household has an income of $60,850 a year, compared to a national median household income of $55,775.

Oklahoma City Sunrise

34. Oklahoma
> Debt per capita: $2,313 (14th lowest)
> 2015 Unemployment rate: 4.2% (tied-13th lowest)
> Credit rating: Aa2/AA+
> Poverty: 16.1% (13th highest)

Oklahoma’s economy grew by only 1.3% in 2015, considerably slower than the 2.4% national GDP growth over the same time. Unemployment has also risen in the Sooner State. The state’s October 2015 unemployment rate of 4.2% climbed to 4.9% in October 2016.

Following Donald Trump’s electoral victory, the President-elect appointed Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin as a vice chair to his transition team. Critics argue the appointment will take Fallin’s attention away from her duties in her home state, specifically pointing to the state’s budget difficulties. During her term as governor, Fallin has slashed tax rates, which resulted in a $1.3 billion budget shortfall. Oklahoma has a less than perfect credit rating and a negative outlook from both S&P and Moody’s.

Phoenix Arizona

35. Arizona
> Debt per capita: $2,097 (12th lowest)
> 2015 Unemployment rate: 6.1% (tied-8th highest)
> Credit rating: Aa2/AA
> Poverty: 17.4% (8th highest)

Arizona’s 6.1% annual unemployment rate is nearly the highest in the country. Not only are residents more like to be unemployed than in other other states, but those unemployed workers receive less financial support than in most of the country. The average weekly unemployment insurance payout is only $223, nearly the lowest of any state and well below the $334 national average. In addition, 41% of those receiving unemployment insurance exhaust their benefits before finding a job, a far larger share than is typical.

Despite the state’s problems, conditions in Arizona have improved considerably. Arizona was the third most poorly run state in the country in 2010. It has climbed in the rankings steadily in recent years and now is now ranked higher than it has been in any of the last seven years.