Special Report

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

31. Colorado
> Debt per capita: $3,214 (22nd lowest)
> Budget deficit: 6.3% (36th largest)
> Unemployment: 8.0% (tied-19th highest)
> Median household income: $56,765 (14th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 13.7% (tied-20th lowest)

Colorado was one of the nation’s weakest exporters in 2012, with only $1,574 worth of goods exported per capita. The average state in 2012 exported close to $5,000 per person. Colorado was among the states spending the least on public welfare programs as of fiscal 2011 — one of three to spend under $1,000 per capita. The poverty level last year, however, was better than the national rate, at under 14%. Colorado’s education spending per capita was slightly below the U.S. average in fiscal 2011. Spending may have been low because the state did not have all that much money to spend. As of fiscal 2011, the Centennial State raised just $5,763 in total revenue per resident, among lowest figures. Governor John Hickenlooper hopes to reverse the state’s poor education funding in next year’s budget, which proposes increases in per-pupil spending. The governor’s efforts signal the reversal of a multi-year trend; Colorado’s per-pupil spending is down by more than 7% compared with education spending in fiscal 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

32. Arkansas
> Debt per capita: $1,280 (3rd lowest)
> Budget deficit: None
> Unemployment: 7.3% (tied-22nd highest)
> Median household income: $40,112 (2nd lowest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 19.8% (4th highest)

By several measures, Arkansas is a fiscally sound state. Government debt as of fiscal 2011 was just 16.5% of annual state revenue, the lowest in the country and much better than the 50% average across all states. The state was also one of just eight to not have any budget gap to close in fiscal 2012. And, relative to its total spending, Arkansas actually spent more on education than any other state. However, Arkansas has a very poor population, with the second lowest median household income of $40,112 in 2012, as well as one of the lowest proportion of adults with a high school diploma or more.

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33. Oklahoma
> Debt per capita: $2,716 (19th lowest)
> Budget deficit: 9.0% (29th largest)
> Unemployment: 5.2% (tied-5th lowest)
> Median household income: $44,312 (10th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 17.2% (tied-15th highest)

By many critical measures of well-being, Oklahoma performs quite poorly. More than 18% of residents did not have health care coverage last year, among the worst in the nation. Additionally, the state’s poverty and violent crime rates were also quite high and median household income was among the 10 lowest in the nation. However, the Sooner State does well by several measures. Between 2007 and 2012, home values rose by 11%, more than all but two other states. Oklahoma’s unemployment rate was fifth lowest in the nation last year, at just 5.2%. Although the state is among the nation’s smallest exporters per capita, it is a major energy producer of both natural gas and oil.

34. Georgia
> Debt per capita: $1,373 (4th lowest)
> Budget deficit: 7.6% (34th largest)
> Unemployment: 9.0% (9th highest)
> Median household income: $47,209 (20th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 19.2% (6th highest)

Georgia exhibits strong fiscal management. The state had among the lowest debt burdens per resident in fiscal 2011 at roughly $1,400, whereas some states carried five times that amount. Additionally, the state had funded nearly 82% of its aggregate pension liabilities as of last year. But the state also had one of the nation’s highest poverty rates in 2012 at over 19%, as well as foreclosure and unemployment rates that ranked among the nation’s worst. Similarly, comparatively few residents had health insurance coverage. Despite that, Governor Nathan Deal has rejected Medicaid expansion and chose not to set up a state-run insurance exchange, two provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

35. Michigan
> Debt per capita: $3,136 (21st lowest)
> Budget deficit: 3.5% (40th largest)
> Unemployment: 9.1% (tied-7th highest)
> Median household income: $46,859 (18th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 17.4% (14th highest)

During the recession, it appeared that no state would be hit harder than Michigan. However, a number of factors have since buoyed the state’s fortunes. In 2009, the state had the highest average unemployment rate in the country. By 2012, while unemployment was still high, six states had higher rates. Michigan’s GDP, which contracted by a record 9.1% in 2009, provides further evidence of the state’s recovery. In the next two years, the state’s GDP growth rate was among the highest in the country. Last year, it grew slightly less than the national rate. Despite its improvement, the state still struggles. Standard & Poor’s rates the Michigan’s credit as among the worst of any state. Characterized as unavoidable by city lawyers earlier this year, Detroit filed for bankruptcy this summer.

36. Mississippi
> Debt per capita: $2,276 (10th lowest)
> Budget deficit: 13.7% (18th largest)
> Unemployment: 9.2% (6th highest)
> Median household income: $37,095 (the lowest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 24.2% (the highest)

Nearly one in every four Mississippi residents lived in poverty last year, the worst rate in the nation. The state’s unemployment was also among the highest in 2012, and median household income was among the nation’s lowest. Property values improved between 2007 and 2012, but relative to other states, median home values went from second lowest in 2007 to lowest in 2012. However the state has been responsible about borrowing, with debt per capita totaling just $2,276 as of fiscal 2011, tenth lowest among the 50 states.

37. Florida
> Debt per capita: $2,294 (11th lowest)
> Budget deficit: 15.8% (16th largest)
> Unemployment: 8.6% (12th highest)
> Median household income: $45,040 (11th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 17.1% (17th highest)

Florida was rocked by the housing crisis as foreclosures piled up, home prices plunged, and construction went unfinished. Home values plummeted by nearly 36% between 2007 and 2012. One in every 32 homes in the state was in foreclosure last year, the highest in the country. Florida also had one of the nation’s highest crime rates, at 487 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. Meanwhile, 20% of the population lacked health coverage, more than all but three other states. The state received accolades from the Tax Foundation, however, for its business-friendly tax climate. Recently, Governor Rick Scott pledged to cut more than $500 million in taxes in his next budget. Scott also touted his own performance in cutting Florida’s deficit. Florida had to close a $3.7 billion deficit, equal to 15.8% of its budget, in fiscal 2012, according to the CBPP.

38. Kentucky
> Debt per capita: $3,332 (25th lowest)
> Budget deficit: 10.5% (26th largest)
> Unemployment: 8.2% (tied-17th highest)
> Median household income: $41,724 (5th lowest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 19.4% (5th highest)

While Kentucky was not heavily in debt, less than half of the state’s pension obligations were funded, well below the national average. Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s both give the state’s credit a relatively low rating, with Standard & Poor’s grading it AA- with a negative outlook, worse than all but a handful of states. Kentucky is one of the poorest states in the country, with a median income of just $41,724, and a poverty rate of more than 19%, both fifth worst in the U.S. Only 83.8% of the adult population had a high school diploma last year, also fifth worst in the country. Despite facing these problems, Kentucky wasn’t even in the top 15 for education or welfare spending in fiscal 2011, relative to the size of its budget.

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39. New York
> Debt per capita: $6,944 (6th highest)
> Budget deficit: 18.2% (10th largest)
> Unemployment: 8.5% (13th highest)
> Median household income: $56,448 (15th highest)
> Pct. below poverty line: 15.9% (tied-22nd highest)

New York’s debt of nearly $7,000 per resident as of fiscal 2011 was among the highest of any state in the nation. Despite the significant presence of major industries in New York, the state was rated by the Tax Foundation as having the worst business tax climate in the nation. The group gave poor ratings to New York’s individual income tax, property tax, and unemployment insurance tax policies. Not all is bad in the Empire State, however. The state’s pension obligations were more than 90% funded, and the state’s foreclosure rate is 10th lowest in the country.

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