In January, POLITICO released its second annual “state of the states of the union,” which ranks the fifty states and the District of Columbia from best to worst using fourteen indicators of health, education, crime, and economic prosperity. The magazine determined Minnesota and New Hampshire to be tied for best state, followed by Vermont, Utah, and Colorado to round out the top five. At the bottom were five southern states: Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and — dead last, at #51 — Mississippi. (California, notably, came in thirty-first.)
Regional disparities are apparent throughout the list. Almost all of the sixteen Census-designated southern states fell in the bottom two quintiles, while five of the six New England states placed in the top 15. These differences, it seems, are established and enduring, as the lower results of this survey are not too far off from a similar 1931 survey mentioned in the article (get it together, Mississippi). It is evident that, for political, economic, and other historical reasons, the South as a region does not fare well on these assessments (a cursory glance at the AP United States History curriculum — which it so happens some southern legislatures are trying to ban — may clarify why). A look at the five highest-ranking states, meanwhile, reveals no clear pattern of shared history and geographic commonality: two lie in New England, two in the Interior West, and one in the Upper Midwest. It would be difficult to write a narrative that links together the development of these disparate states, so there must be something else besides broad regional patterns that can their individual high rankings. What underlying factors, beyond those measured in the survey, allow POLITICO’s top ten states to outperform others?
The Prominent Metropolis
One feature of several of the top ten states that is not directly indexed in the survey is the presence of a lone, bustling metropolis with a well-developed surrounding region. In the states where this is the case, it seems likely that the economic and cultural prosperity of the urban core is of great advantage in securing a high rank.
To understand this factor, look at #1 Minnesota, in which the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area is home to 53 percent of the state’s residents, or #6 Massachusetts, in which Greater Boston contains 67 percent of the state’s population. Out west, we see that metropolitan Denver and Salt Lake City make up 50 percent and 39 percent of their respective Rocky Mountain states, while metropolitan Seattle holds a 51 percent share of #9 Washington. Fittingly enough, in Bloomberg’s 50 Best Cities survey in 2012, all of these urban centers (save Salt Lake City, which is the smallest of the group and failed to make the list) ranked in the top twelve nationwide. (I should note here that I have not mentioned #10 New Jersey in this category. Though it has no single major metropolis of its own, it’s worth noting that its population is 94% urban and largely in the metropolitan areas of New York and Philadelphia, both of which are on Bloomberg’s list.) A single, economically and culturally vibrant urban core that contains the lion’s share of a state’s population and is, on its own, one of the country’s best places to live may be just enough to put some states above the rest. In these cities and suburbs where high life expectancy, high income, and low unemployment (among other positive factors) are the norm, it is likely that these indicators pull the ranking of the entire state in an upward direction.
A second unacknowledged factor prevalent in the top-ranked states is a lack of ethnic diversity. For some states, ranking at the top may entail containing a large, successful metropolitan area whose well-being indicators outweigh those of other, less-influential population cores. But what are we to make of the other states — #1 New Hampshire, #3 Vermont, #7 Iowa, and #8 Maine — that do not have a singular major city driving forward the state’s measurements of health, wealth, and education? The answer here may be more controversial: these four states are among the top five least ethnically diverse states in the country, each home to a population that is at least ninety percent Caucasian.
It is well documented in research that a large economic gap persists among American racial groups. The different rankings between our top ten and bottom ten states (of which six are in the top ten for most African American residents) may — in measures such as median income, poverty level, and high school graduation rate — reflect the systemic inequalities faced by various minority groups in the United States. Many racial-minority Americans are forced to contend with pronounced difficulty in finding access to good-paying jobs, healthcare, education, and safe neighborhoods to live in — all of which are benchmarks in POLITICO’s rankings. Thus one reason that states like Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont may rank so highly is, in addition to other merits, their homogeneous populations simply do not encounter many of these issues of racial inequality on a large scale (though of course this is not to say that racial and ethnic minorities in these states, like above, do not face such challenges individually).
That the success of these states may be tied to their lack of diversity is an uncomfortable claim for a proponent of a diverse, pluralistic vision of American society. But, according to the work of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, diverse communities participate to a lesser extent in civic engagement, which is quantified by voting rates, volunteering, and charitable giving. It is a sorry reflection on the United States of America in 2015 that it is still the case that an overwhelmingly white population can attain the indicators necessary to perform well on the survey while more racially diverse state populations cannot.
So what are we to make of ranked states? For one, the rankings don’t tell us everything: the two factors of POLITICO-rankings success I’ve proposed for the top states — lone metropolitan area predominance and low ethnic diversity — are likely just two factors among many that lend understated influence to POLITICO’s measurements of a state’s quality of life. What is evident is that the top-ranked states will continue to outperform their (largely southern) counterparts as long as racial and urban divides can continue to predict broader lifestyle outcomes. For Mississippi (and, truly, all states), this is something to think about for next year.