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The 5 best and worst states for a well-lived life
Let's go beyond GDP
 
Where should you plant your roots?
Where should you plant your roots? (iStock)

How long can a baby born today in Missouri, New Mexico, or Minnesota expect to live?

What wages and salaries are typical of Latinos in the United States, and how do they compare to those of whites or African Americans?

What's the proportion of adults who have completed high school or college in Houston as compared to Dallas?

These are just some of the questions a recent report on the state of the United States tries to answer. A project of the non-partisan Social Science Research Council, "The Measure of America 2013-2014" attempts to gauge the well being of the nation by focusing on the well-being of individuals, with a broader perspective than that of pure economics.

The U.S. already has multiple ways to measure economic wellbeing — GDP, the unemployment rate, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the S&P 500, endless monthly sales reports — but these are all money-focused metrics. The metric used by Measure of America is called the American Human Development Index, a slightly modified version of economist Mahbub ul Haq's internationally applied Human Development Index.

The American version of the index quantifies the many socioeconomic differences that exist in the country, from state to state and more broadly among racial and ethnic groups.

HDI looks at health, education, and income as the three most important ingredients for a happy life. Health is specifically defined as life expectancy at birth; education as a combination of school enrollment and degree attainment; and income as the median earnings of all full- and part-time workers 16 years and older. Each of these gets rolled into its own index with a corresponding number, and those figures are then rolled into a composite index.

Using this methodology, Measure of America ranked all 50 states and 25 major metropolitan areas. Key findings of the study include:

  • The country’s overall Human Development Index score is 5.03. It had been 1.63 in 1960. Average life expectancy has increased by more than nine years over that span, and adults are now almost four times as likely to have a college degree.
  • While health and education have steadily improved, overall wage growth has been much weaker and less consistent. Though the Great Recession did its part in dragging wages downward, the trend in declining earnings started before the 2008 financial crash. From 2000 to 2005, wages stalled or declined in 39 states after 40 years of a slow but steady national increase.
  • The biggest gainer from 2000 to 2010 was the District of Columbia, which jumped fro m 24th to fourth in the rankings.
  • Only one state experienced a decline in its human development index score from 2000 to 2010: Michigan.
  • Natural resource booms have allowed states like New Mexico, Montana, and West Virginia to avoid the earnings losses most other states faced between 2000 and 2010, but their HDI rankings remained low, indicating vast natural resource holdings don't necessarily translate into improvements at the individual level.
  • The top-scoring racial/ethnic group is Asian Americans, with an HDI score of 7.21. Whites are next at 5.43, Latinos at 4.05, African Americans at 3.81 and Native Americans at 3.55.


The takeaway? "GDP is a useful economic indicator, but it can provide misleading signals when used as a measure of human progress," says Measure of America Co-Director Kristen Lewis. "GDP has tripled over the last 35 years, but the earnings of the typical worker have barely budged."

Here are the five top-ranking states and metropolitan areas on the American HDI scale, as well as the five states and metropolitan areas at the bottom of the lists.

Top-ranked states for a life well-lived:

Connecticut (HDI score: 6.17)
Life expectancy at birth is 80.8 years, 35.5 percent of the population over age 25 has at least a bachelor's degree and median earnings are $35,926 in 2010 dollars.

Massachusetts (HDI score: 6.16)
Life expectancy at birth is 80.5 years, 39 percent of the population over age 25 has at least a bachelor's degree and median earnings are $35,547 in 2010 dollars.

New Jersey (HDI score: 6.08)
Life expectancy at birth is 80.3 years, 35.4 percent of the population over age 25 has at least a bachelor's degree, and median earnings are $37,230 in 2010 dollars.

District of Columbia (HDI score: 6.08)
Life expectancy at birth is 76.5 years, 50.1 percent of the population over age 25 has at least a bachelor's degree, and median earnings are $42,058 in 2010 dollars.

Maryland (HDI score: 5.94)
Life expectancy at birth is 78.8 years, 36.1 percent of the population over age 25 has at least a bachelor's degree and median earnings are $38,214 in 2010 dollars.

Worst-ranked states for a life well-lived:

Alabama (HDI score: 4.04)
Life expectancy at birth is 75.4 years, 21.9 percent of the population over age 25 has at least a bachelor's degree and median earnings are $25,530 in 2010 dollars.

Kentucky (HDI score: 4.02)
Life expectancy at birth in Kentucky is 76.0 years, 20.5 percent of the population over age 25 has at least a bachelor's degree and median earnings are $25,169 in 2010 dollars.

West Virginia (HDI score: 3.95)
Life expectancy at birth in West Virginia is 75.4 years, 17.5 percent of the population over age 25 has at least a bachelor's degree and median earnings are $25,475 in 2010 dollars.

Arkansas (HDI score: 3.91)
Life expectancy at birth in Arkansas is 76.0 years, 19.5 percent of the population over age 25 has at least a bachelor's degree and median earnings are $23,992 in 2010 dollars.

Mississippi (HDI score: 3.81)
Life expectancy at birth in Mississippi is 75.0 years, 19.5 percent of the population over age 25 has at least a bachelor's degree and median earnings are $24,430 in 2010 dollars.

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