The Arizona Report: State Falls Short

January 12, 2013

The 3 E’s of economy, education and environment might be regarded as the three critical measures of a state’s well-being.

The Arizona Report, a simple scorecard capsulizing the more important reports of Thinking Arizona, sums up how the state ranks in comparison with others.

We’re doing just fine in quantity.   The advent of air conditioning, which turned an inhospitable climate into an inviting one, brought on a People Rush.

We’re not keeping up though on quality.  While Arizona has raced ahead in population, The Arizona Report graphically shows the state hasn’t gained similar momentum on key measures of performance.  A majority of Arizonans sacrifice in:

  • Income.   Arizona ranks 41st in the country in income per capita.
  • Education.  Arizona ranks 42nd in a composite of 4th and 8th grade reading scores.
  • Even in the air we breathe.  Arizona ranks 41st in an index of air quality.

No other state sums up worse across all three E’s.

Try out the Arizona Report.  Compare us to other states, one or two at a time.  See how Arizona does.

Arizona certainly won’t be confused with Massachusetts, which ranks 2nd and 1st in economic and education performance, nor with New Jersey, which ranks 3rd and 2nd.  It doesn’t compare to Minnesota, which ranks 11th and 6th.  Nor even to Colorado, a fellow Four Corners state, which ranks 13th and 10th on those dimensions and 18th in environmental quality.

Rather Arizona compares more Indiana and Tennessee.  Those states match Arizona in population and they lag the country nearly as much as Arizona on all three dimensions of performance.

Not A Function of Size

That’s not to suggest performance is driven by population.  Arizona is similar to Indiana and Tennessee in population but size-wise it’s also comparable to Massachusetts.  And it bears no comparison to Massachusetts in performance.

Arizona will likely overtake Massachusetts in population in the next decade or so, something it already has done to a lot of other states.  At its birth, Arizona was the 45th largest state.  Fifty years later, it was 35th.  Now, another 50 years later, the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau put it 15th.

The growth is enough to wonder if that’s the explanation for poor performance, the notion being that it would be difficult for any state to keep up with a rapidly rising population. Yet Florida, which over the years has grown even faster than Arizona, outdoes Arizona in performance.

Location Counts

One factor that does bear on the results is location.  It’s good to be in the Northeast, at least in these regards.  The top five states in both economic and education performance are located there.

It’s not so good to be South or West.  The bottom five in economic and education performance are located in one or the other.

Arizona comes out strikingly similar to the other states of the desert Southwest.  However, unlike Arizona, each of the others at least somewhat redeems itself on one of the dimensions.  Utah ranks 26th in education performance, Nevada comes in 34th in economic performance, and New Mexico is way up there in 8th place in environmental quality.

The specific causes of Arizona’s performance have been documented in previous editions of Thinking Arizona.  In short:

  • Arizona’s job mix is changing.  Premium jobs in manufacturing are being replaced by retail and other lower wage jobs. Interestingly, though, the state does not compare badly in terms of average wages.  Where it falls short is in the number of jobs available.  Arizona ranks second to the bottom in the ratio of jobs to its work-age population.  Update to Edition 6
  • Arizona sits south of the “Education Divide.”  Students south of the divide score more poorly on average, in part because higher percentages of them are disadvantaged and minorities.  Arizona compounds this deficit by spending less per pupil than all but three other states.  Edition 8
  • Arizona’s air isn’t more polluted than some number of other states; the problem is that a majority of Arizonans live where conditions are the worst.  Few other metro areas dominate their respective states they way Phoenix does Arizona.  The concentration of population produces a lot of ground-level ozone and, unique to the West, kicks up a lot of dust.  Edition 9

A Little Soul-Searching

We can deduce the causes of each of the parts, but how do we explain the whole of our performance?  That’s a question deserving of deep reflection, maybe even a little soul searching.

The overall pattern is disturbing.   Arizona has grown into too big a state to be a backwater.  Yet it treats itself as one.

This isn’t to suggest that anyone is lying down on the job.   The respective state agencies, as well as economic development organizations and school districts around the state, are staffed by earnest people who struggle with these performance issues every day.  They are urged on by an array of advocacy groups that have not been shy to jump into the fray.

What then is the explanation?

  • Is it circumstances “beyond our control” that handicap the state?  Perhaps we can blame something peculiar to the Southwest, the harsh climate, or the desert environment, or the Indian reservations that now stand smack dab in the path of progress, or the extra burden of illegal immigrants.
  • Is it that population growth has lulled us into a false sense of security, that somehow we don’t need to bother with being competitive?
  • Is it low expectations?  One wag’s reaction to The Arizona Report was: “This isn’t bad.  We’re used to even lower rankings than these.”   Low is our normal.   We seem to accept the bottom rung  of the ladder as the price we pay for living in Arizona.
  • Is it a lack of leadership in bringing us together under the banner of an overarching vision and the constancy over the many years that will be needed to achieve it?  That’s the viewpoint at least of the effort known as “The Arizona We Want.”
  • Is it a matter of ideology?  Opinions are no doubt divided about what’s more essential to the future of the state, the concerns presented here or the trickle-down objectives of free enterprise and low taxes.   Arizona certainly succeeds in the latter, ranking 45th in state revenue per capita and 46th in government spending per capita.
  • Is it that our methods are insufficient?  Is our focus scattered across far too many agendas?  Could we be planning the work and working the plan with more concentrated, single-minded purpose?
  • Or is it aspects of all of the above that join together to undermine us?

The explanation for Arizona’s performance is just one question.  The consequences are another.  How best to address it is still another.  There’s more to come in Thinking Arizona.

– Richard Gilman

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