Economic opportunity can be a difficult concept to measure. Unlike some other parameters, such as gross domestic product or manufacturing output, the definition of how much opportunity the residents of a given region have is more nebulous. While some economic conditions play a part in the process — including unemployment and poverty rates — factors like access to education or community-based resources are also important.
Opportunity Nation, an organization with a goal to increase economic opportunity, compiled an index of the statistic for the United States in 2013. The group’s methodology was to diversify its measure into the three broad categories of education, economy, and community, bringing the total number of measurements that factor into final scores to 16.
Some trends in this year’s index were positive; overall, opportunity in the U.S. increased by 2.6 percent from two years ago, and the vast majority of states reported substantial drops in the rates of violent crimes. However, other trends were not so rosy. Most states posted an increase in the rate of poverty and a decrease in median household income during the same time period. In addition, one in seven young people in the U.S. are currently classified as “inactive,” meaning that they are not actively pursuing their education or working.
Another trend that has given some cause for pause is that regional variance across the data is at an all-time high. This implies, for states like last-place Nevada, that opportunity is quite far below the average value for the country. But what exactly does it mean for some of the higher-ranked states? Let’s take a look at the nine U.S. states with the highest levels of economic opportunity.
9. South Dakota
The first stop on our list is South Dakota, a state with an overall ranking that comes in at 58.5. With 16 states coming in below 50, South Dakota’s score puts it a step above the median value for the U.S., which is around 53. With a strong rating in the economy section, fueled by one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, South Dakota could be your go-to state if you need to improve your career. However, there are better options if you’re looking to further your education, a category in which the state scored a subpar value of below 50.
8. New Jersey
Next up, we head to the Atlantic coast, more specifically, New Jersey, which boasts a rating of 58.9 in the economic opportunity index. And it isn’t a surprise to see New Jersey posting one of the highest education scores in the country — especially with institutions like Rutgers and Princeton, which is one of the oldest and most iconic college towns in the world. While New Jersey lags behind slightly in the economic category, many are hopeful that things will pick up in the state as the U.S. economy gathers steam, which will be helpful to urban areas surrounding New York City and Newark.
Tied with New Jersey at 58.9 overall is fellow Atlantic state Massachusetts. There’s more than just the Red Sox’s trip to the World Series to get excited about here. Massachusetts’s top educational institutions (like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) give the state a solid score in the education category, and it places respectably in the economy and community categories, as well. The solid performance is good enough to take the No. 7 spot on the list.
For the No. 6 finisher on our list, we move to the Midwest to check in on Iowa, a state that posted an economic opportunity score of 59.2. Iowa is one of the best all-around picks in the country, earning its spot on the list through a balance in all three categories. One of the better states in the country for businesses from a tax perspective, Iowa has stable sectors in manufacturing and agriculture, meaning that the state’s spot on the list is here to stay.
Staying in the Midwest, we move on to Nebraska, which, with a score of 60.5, is the first state to cross the 60 threshold on our list. This Corn Belt state scores admirably in the economy and community categories, though it lags behind in the education category. Despite having a couple of respectable colleges, the education score also encompasses other factors that reflect on the knowledge base of the youth, in which the state does not quite hold up to with some of the other top finishers on the list.
4. New Hampshire
Another all-around strong finisher is New Hampshire, a state that posted a 60.7 score on the economic opportunity index. That’s certainly good news for the residents of the sparsely populated state, which has honed in on property taxes as its primary source of revenue and as part of its efforts to maintain and diversify the state’s economy. By the results of this index, at least, officials in the state aren’t doing too bad a job of it.
3. North Dakota
The score of the No. 3 finisher on the list, North Dakota, is 60.8, which ranks six spots higher than its southern-state partner. The landscape of opportunity in North Dakota is similar to other states in the region, with high scores in the economy and community departments but nothing to brag about in the education category. If North Dakota wants to make progress in the field of opportunity, investing in education will be key to bolstering its overall score.
The second-place finisher on our list is Minnesota, a state that slightly outranks the two states below it with an economic opportunity score of 60.9. With a strong community score, Minnesota is propelled by solid showings in the other two categories, as well, bringing it into one of the top spots in the nation. With the headquarters of Target and Best Buy in the vicinity of the Twin Cities, an economic recovery in the U.S. will translate into better results for the state, making it poised to maintain its ranking in the coming years.
If you’re looking for the state with the most economic opportunity in the nation, look no further than the home of the Green Mountains. The top spot on our list is none other than Vermont, which boasts an opportunity score of 65.9, a full five points above the second-place finisher. Though Vermont’s economy and education scores are both above average, it is the community score that pushes the state over the top: Its value in that category is nearly 10 points above the next highest in the country.
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