Baer: A new look at our (very) average state

20160117-Tom-Wolf
Gov. Wolf is getting ready to present a new budget, even without one for this fiscal year.

AS GOV. WOLF prepares to go back to the well (or the pit) of the legislature with a new (?) budget plan, it seems a good time to take an independent look at the state of our state.

You know Wolf's view: education crisis, fiscal crisis, need new taxes to avoid a "train-wreck" crisis.

You know the GOP legislature's view: Things aren't that bad, don't need new taxes, and (for real Republicans) need to cut government spending.

As in most things with politicians, truth is somewhere in the middle. As in all things with politicians, it's nearly impossible to get to the middle.

So for a nonpartisan view, let's look at a new study by the D.C.-based Corporation for Enterprise Development, a respected research group specializing in the economies of families and how government impacts the lives of its citizens.

If you're thinking, in Pennsylvania, not all that well, you're thinking clearly.

The CFED's annual analysis, its "Assets & Opportunity Scorecard," puts our state in the middle of states, ranked 24th with a very average C.

That's where we flew last year, too: not crashing, but sure not soaring.

And it's probably no surprise that the report says, "State policies are doing little to improve the financial security of Pennsylvania families."

I'd note that's because state politicians are doing little to improve anything.

The study examines family assets, businesses and jobs, health care, and education.

Close to 70 policy measures are used in rating states against national averages.

The best state on the scorecard is Vermont. The worst is Mississippi.

Here are Pennsylvania highlights:

Overall, more than a third (36 percent) of state households are locked in "perpetual financial insecurity."

These are moderate- and lower-income households without much savings, if any; as CFED research manager Lebaron Sims puts it, "One financial shock away from ruin."

Not enough jobs. Not enough good-paying jobs.

There's also a business problem.

In "microenterprise ownership," businesses with five or fewer employees, which Sims says "tends to be a proxy for states' economies," Pennsylvania ranks 49th.

Kevin Shivers, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, says these businesses represent the vast majority, and other studies show similar results.

Why? "The cost and complexity to get up and running, the state's regulatory and tax burdens," says Shivers, and the fact that the state puts too much emphasis on attracting big companies and too little on improving the climate for small ones.

In education, a key area of contention between Wolf and the legislature, there's good news and bad.

The state scores above national averages in math and reading proficiencies and in high school graduation rates.

This suggests a "crisis" that's locally selective in a state where, according to the U.S. Education Department, equity per-pupil spending between rich and poor school districts is worst in the nation.

Oh, and Pennsylvania ranks 47th in college-graduate debt, meaning it's among the highest in the country, an average of $33,264.

Why? Because the state has lots of great colleges and universities, but they are expensive. Costs for in-state students at four-year public schools are third-highest in America, behind only New Hampshire and Vermont.

And the state's tax-advantaged childhood college-savings plan does not offer the types of government matches available in a dozen other states.

The study does have a bright spot. It's in health care.

We have a lower percent of uninsured residents (10 percent) and a lower percentage of low-income uninsured children (7.6 percent) than national averages.

Sims says that's partly due to the Affordable Care Act and Wolf's expansion of Medicaid. But he also says "health care is generally affordable in Pennsylvania," and points to findings that employee-paid shares of premiums are among the nation's lowest.

Still, it's clear that there's work to do. And I point to our overall low ratings, in case Wolf and lawmakers ever want to agree to work up from a mediocre C.

Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer