As many balances of power shift from Washington, D.C., to the states, it's essential to understand which states are doing best at what matters most to Americans.
The central American contract is a constitutional pact the states made with the federal government — starting with the original colonies and continuing with each admission to the union through Hawaii: "Powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution... are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Now, in the first objective, authoritative measure taken of all the states across a comprehensive range of critical issues, U.S. News and World Report is telling a revealing new story about which ones are performing best for their citizens.
The headline may be the ranking of the top 10: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington, Iowa, Utah, Maryland, Colorado and Vermont. Yet the story goes much further, including an exhaustive 50 state-by-state roster of metrics supporting rankings across dozens of subcategories. It explains in detail how they're scored, and offers readers a unique and simple interactive tool that enables anyone to compare any one state with any others.
In a union such as this, each state has something to learn from the others. Some have better health care, some better education, some more economic opportunity for their citizenry. Drawing any comparisons should be more than a matter of bragging rights. It requires clear-eyed measures to make real judgments.
That's what Best States is all about. It's a platform for not only rankings, but also ongoing fresh reporting about news, trends and developments state by state.
"We pay too much attention to Washington, and not enough to the states," says Brian Kelly, editor and chief content officer at U.S. News. "And yet, you look at the states and all of the issues we talk about in broad strokes are playing out there — education and health care and crime, the economy and jobs."
Best States also arrives at a time of renewed focus on power devolving to the states from Washington, D.C., enabling policymakers to understand how some states are best performing with the responsibilities they're assuming.
"It is the direction of the country," Kelly says. "We're sort of rediscovering federalism. The place was invented to be a federal system, and we've gotten away from that. I think a lot of the political pushback you're seeing from voters in a lot of places is a reflection of that. Washington has become too powerful. It has too much influence over people's lives."
U.S. News, with deep experience in rankings and analysis, has assembled thousands of data points about the states and produced an online portal that enables anyone to easily see what makes some states stronger and draw comparisons with others. The project is powered by the research of and a Leading States Index developed by McKinsey & Company, which has extensive experience in consulting focused on the improvement of state governance.
The benchmarks reach across seven broad categories — health care, education, opportunity, economy, infrastructure, crime & corrections and government — and include 68 metrics within the larger categories, with literally thousands of data points behind the measures. The data come from reliable governmental and private sources, and the weight assigned to each category is based on a survey that McKinsey conducted about what matters most to people about their states.
"In each of the seven categories, we identified multiple metrics, all of which are well known and the best metrics in each of the categories that we're talking about,'' says Andre Dua, a senior partner at McKinsey. "We feel very confident about both the granularity of the metrics and the quality of the metrics. And the thing that gives us more confidence is, we are completely transparent about what are the metrics and where the metrics come from."
"Because the indices are made up of so many metrics, the good news about that is there is no one source or metric which is overly weighted and therefore changes our view about what sort of insights we can draw from the work," Dua says. "It is a broad and nuanced and textured view of what it means to be high-performing."
In addition, McKinsey surveyed thousands of people across the country to ascertain what matters most to citizens about the performances of their state governments and how well they believe they're being served.
"We think it's incredibly important in thinking about state performance, state policy making, agenda setting, to start by grounding yourself in the view of citizens," Dua says, speaking to the value of the ultimate comparisons that are made state by state. "Without data on performance and without data on citizen satisfaction, any other judgment you make on priorities and where to focus is simply guesswork."
Health care and education are weighted most heavily as a result of the survey.
And for this reason, Massachusetts — which ranks No. 1 nationally in education and No. 2 in health care in all of these metrics — stands out as the overall No. 1 Best State. New Hampshire — No 1 in opportunity for its citizens — ranks No. 2 overall. Minnesota — No. 2 in opportunity, No. 5 for infrastructure — ranks No. 3.
"Health care was at the top," Kelly notes. "I think that's a really profound trend in society. (Among) the states that are really good at that… look at No. 1 Massachusetts, it's a collection of some of the best hospitals, medical researchers in the world that is dominant. The second thing they're really good at is education, and people say that education matters."
Some states, while not ranking highly overall, also excel in some areas.
It's an "interesting array of states, some blue, some red, some purple," Kelly says. "You look at the top 20, and it's a broad mix. It's not the usual suspects in some ways." No. 7, Utah, for instance, "is obviously much more conservative, but does things well — has jobs, has a government with integrity."
"When you look at the usual suspects that people always talk about — California, Texas, Florida — they don't do so well,'' he adds. California, ranked 23rd overall, ranks No. 3 for its economy, and No. 10 for health care. Texas, ranked 38th overall, ranks No. 6 for its economy. Florida, 24th overall, is No. 7 for its economy.
"It's hard to be good at many things," Kelly says. "The value of a ranking like this is we use our judgment to say, it's not just one thing that makes a state great. It's a combination of things. Are you serving your whole population?... You have a healthy economy, but is everybody in the state participating in that economy? Is everybody participating in the health care system? It's a lot of things that matter."
Because so much of the data involved in this evaluation is public — yet often tied up in difficult to navigate government websites — Best States delivers it all in an easy-to-use format at this website. In the Data Explorer and across the Best States site, you will find tens of thousands of charts allowing you to take a deep dive into one state's data, compare one state with another or consider performance issue by issue. Using the Data Explorer, you can also build charts to share on social media.
"It's been true for a long time that the federal model is a grand experiment, and it's also been true for a long time that different states and also cities are experimenting in a number of ways," Dua says. "What's interesting about about this data is, you can look at the data and say, 'I know exactly who's doing well in education and health,' and it leads you directly to the question of, 'I wonder what it is they're doing… What's exciting about this data is, it tells you exactly where to look to find out what experiments are going well and where they're working.''
We'll be pursuing that story at Best States, with contributions from staff writers and journalists around the country who know their states best. We're also providing a collection of profiles of each state, a primer of history, culture and modern conditions that offer some insight into where they stand today.
Viewed as a whole, Kelly says, it's "a news analysis and rankings platform designed to inform engaged citizens, business leaders and policymakers alike about what's working and what needs improvement across the country."
"We think the data is powerful because it spurs behavior," he says. "It creates a competition among states. I'm assuming, I'm hoping, that a bunch of governors look really hard at this, raise some questions, some state legislators get engaged… Highlighting the really high performers gives you role models, it gives you a chance to look at how they got where they got. We think, across the board, transparency and some light on these issues is very valuable. "
The best five U.S. states are:
2. New Hampshire
4. North Dakota
The worst five U.S. states are:
46. New Mexico