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CNBC's Top States For Business—Hawaii Tops In Quality of Life; Two Others Tie For Cost of Living

Cost of living versus quality of life—it’s sometimes a tug of war for workers and companies in the USA and rarely is their a happy medium.

That’s more than apparent in CNBC’s fourth annual survey, America’s Top States for Business.

TakeHawaii. The state won the Quality of Life category, edging out Colorado, another scenic, pristine locale. Meanwhile, Hawaii ranked last in Cost of Living, just behind California. (Colorado, by the way, was 35.).

(Check out full criteria and rankings)

Tops in the Cost-of-Living category—meaning the most affordable—were Oklahoma and Tennessee, with both Arkansas and Kentucky one point behind them. Now take a guess where they rank in Quality of Life. Try the bottom ten, with Tennessee at 49.

Is there a perfect balance? The rankings would suggest not, since Quality of Life is worth far more points (350) than Cost of Living (25).

Top Performers

That said if you’re looking for a high-scoring combination try sparsely-populated states in the Great Plains and the Midwest.

Topping that list is South Dakota, home to 812,000 people.

South Dakota ranks 11th in Quality of Life and 5th in Cost of Living.

Neighboring North Dakota, population 647,000, finished 13th in Quality of Life and tied five other states for 17th in Cost Of Living

Minnesota, population 5.2 million, was 12th in Quality Of Life and 15th in Cost Of Living.

Iowa, population 3 million, managed to finish 17th in both the Quality of Life and Cost Of Living categories.

And Nebraska, population 1.8 million, tied for 5th in Cost Of Living but 21st in Quality of Life.

Bottom Bunch

When it comes to the worst combinations, there’s no geographic pattern, though size does seem to be a factor.

The worst combination may be Louisiana, which ranks last in Quality of Life and 24th in Cost of Living.

Not far behind is Delaware—47th in Quality of Life and 31st in Cost of Living; and RhodeIsland, 33rd in Quality of Life and 40th in Cost of Living.

Of the biggest and most populous states, Illinois is the most balanced—17th in Cost of Living, 24th in Quality of Life.

Pennsylvania is 30th in Quality Of Life, 25th in Cost of Living?

Florida, the retirement Mecca, is 31st in Quality Of Life, 30th in Cost Of Living.

Quality Vs. Cost

Though the Quality-Of-Life-category may be inherently less quantifiable than others, it is certainly a competitive one when it comes to the top ten.

The three winners since the inception—Hawaii, New Hampshire,New Jersey(twice)—have little in common; and the category’s overall order is routinely shaken up.

The big winner in 2010 was Colorado, which jumped from 10th to 2nd. The big losers both slipped five spots, Wyoming (5/10) and New Jersey (9/14).

Cost of living, partly because of its size, is less fluid, with multiple ties common in the top ten.

Oklahoma tied Tennessee for first this year, after tying Arkansas for the honor in 2009. Arkansas was third this year. The three states have dominated the top five. So have Georgia andKansasbut to a slightly lesser extent.

Much in the same way, the bottom 11 are the same each year, with Hawaii, Alaska, New Jersey, California, New York, Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Islandand New Hampshire changing spots.

The cost of living category—which covers such items as housing, food and energy—makes for easy comparisons.

Take the cost of a gallon of gasoline, for example. It is $3.27 in Honolulu, $2.77 in Los Angeles vs. $2.38 in Oklahoma City and $2.41 in Nashville—according to a recent spot check on gasbuddy.com.

House prices are also very illustrative. The median price for a single-family home in the Honolulu area in the first quarter of 2010 was $621,000—tops in the nation. California’s Silicon Valley fetched $560,000.

By comparison, the median price was $114.000 in Memphis, Tenn., $125,000 in Tulsa, Okla. and $124,000 in Little Rock, Ark.

These days, not all aspects of the cost of living equation are so transparent and explicit. In many areas of the country, you’d never know inflation was tame, with consumer prices running at a 1-percent annual rate.

Sure, real estate prices are down or flat, but the cost of goods and services is up. In cash-strapped states, there are higher government fees and/or taxes. Your local Little League may even be charging more for registration. Meanwhile, for many Americans wages are flat, for some they’re even down

Some of these changes might be too subtle to be captured by CNBC’s Top States For Business survey in 2010, but the rankings still reflect every day life.