Best and Worst States to Make A Living 2015

There are certain states where wages, job growth and cost of living factors make them great places to live.
By Richard Barrington

Whether you’re looking for work or eager to advance your career, where you choose to live can make a real difference.

Job prospects are not equally rosy across America. Some states are booming, while others still struggle with high unemployment. Living costs and local taxation can vary widely, making a dollar earned here not the same as one earned there. Yet we all seek the same goal: Finding the best possible environments for ourselves and for our families to thrive.

With this in mind, MoneyRates evaluated several factors to determine where workers had the best shot at a healthy paycheck and savings account, a decent cost of living and safe workplaces. But we also found steep pressures on wages, stunted job growth and higher rates of injury.


Here are the five factors we evaluated and the data sources we used:

  1. Average wages. Average annual wage data is from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  2. State tax rates. MoneyRates analyzed the state tax information collected by the research group Tax Foundation.
  3. Cost of living. Data was sourced from the Council for Community and Economic Research’s Cost of Living Index.
  4. The unemployment rate. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  5. Incidents of workplace illness, injuries and fatalities. This workplace safety data is from the BLS, which sourced data from employer reports to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the BLS Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses.

Study Highlights

  • Texas was the best state to make a living for 2015, moving up from 2nd place last year. It edged out Washington, with the two states trading positions from last year. 
  • Hawaii, while ever-beautiful, is a tough place for workers looking to get ahead. It came in dead last in our analysis of all 50 states, largely due to its sky-high cost of living. Adjusted for taxes and the cost of living, workers in Hawaii get the equivalent value of just 55 cents for every dollar they make.
  • Compare that to Massachusetts where the average employee makes over 50 percent more than the average employee in Mississippi.

How did your state measure up?

Best States to Make a Living 2015

Here are the Top 10 best states to make a living:

  1. Texas. After finishing second on this list last year, Texas took over the top spot in 2015. Texas scored well across the board on a variety of employment conditions, contributing to a healthy economy. In 2013, the state’s gross domestic product expanded 3.7 percent – higher than the 1.8 percent growth rate for the rest of the U.S., according to The Texas Economy run by the state Comptroller’s office. Although average wages in Texas was only slightly above the national average, workers in Texas get good value from those wages. The cost of living in the state is below average, and there is no state income tax. On top of those economic considerations, only one state (Louisiana) had fewer incidents of workplace illness, injuries and fatalities. Put it all together, and Texas ranks as this year's best state for making a living.
  2. Washington. Having won the top spot on the list last year, Washington put in another very strong showing, though it was just edged out of the No. 1 position by Texas. Unlike Texas, which was above average across the board, Washington scored well on the strength of two outstanding attributes: it has one of the highest average wages in the country with employees earning an annual income of $52,540, and workers in the state get to keep more of their pay because there is no state income tax. The state is poised for employment growth in major sectors in the future, according to the Washington Employment Security Department. For example, economic and job growth is expected to help increase demand for tech and professional and business services in Seattle-King County.
  3. Wyoming. A common thread that ties together all three of the top states in this year's study is that they do not have a state income tax. That alone more than makes up for an average wage in Wyoming, which is slightly below the national standard. In addition, Wyoming scored near the top because the cost of living and unemployment are well below the levels in most states. The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services projects that the mining, health care and social assistance industries will experience the most hiring growth. “The Equality State” also has fewer workplace safety issues.
  4. Virginia. Moving up a few slots from last year's seventh-place ranking, Virginia has one of the highest average wages in the nation. Virginia also scored very well in terms of workplace safety, tying for the third-lowest rate of reported incidents. As a final point of strength, Virginia also has lower unemployment than the average state.
  5. Illinois. Last year Illinois just missed making the top 10, but this year it surged all the way to No. 5. The key to its high ranking is that Illinois has relatively high wages combined with a reasonable tax rate and cost of living. The one negative is that the 6 percent unemployment rate in the state is still above the national average.
  6. Michigan. Though the city of Detroit has had its well-publicized problems, the strength of Michigan's overall performance in this study may be attributed to how well the auto industry has bounced back in recent years. This year, Michigan improved all the way from 32nd to 6th in this study, and the most obvious reason is that the unemployment rate dropped from 7.4 percent to 5.4 percent. Another significant factor for Michigan is its below-average cost of living, which helps people's wages go further.
  7. Colorado. Despite slipping from No. 4 to No. 7 this year, Colorado still ranks well for high wages and low unemployment. In fact, like Michigan, Colorado made significant improvement in unemployment over the past year, dropping from 6 percent to 4.2 percent. Relatively high wages are also a driving factor in this state’s ranking.
  8. Delaware. This state climbed from 12th to 8th to crack the top 10 this year. In addition to having relatively high wages and low unemployment, Delaware also has one of the lowest rates of workplace safety incidents.
  9. Ohio. The wage situation in Ohio illustrates why it is important to look at the big picture when weighing two different job offers. On the surface, the average wage in Ohio is a little below the national standard, but when you adjust this for a low cost of living and low state income tax rate, workers in Ohio actually come out well ahead of their counterparts in most other states. On top of that, Ohio also ranked high for workplace safety.
  10. Utah. Though it slipped from the No. 5 spot last year, Utah hung on to just make the top 10 in 2015. Utah's 3.4 percent unemployment rate is well below the national average, and the cost of living in the state is also very low.

Ranking is based on performance across all featured metrics:

RankStateCOL IndexAverage IncomeState Tax on Average IncomeUnemployment RateWork Incidents/100 Workers

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Council for Community and Economic Research, Tax Foundation, MoneyRates research

Worst States to Make a Living 2015

Making a living involves overcoming a series of challenges. First you have to get a job, and then you have to strive year after year to improve your income. You need to deal with the toll that taxes and the cost of living take on that paycheck. On top of that, the workplace itself may pose a physical challenge in the form of a stressful or hazardous environment.

It's never easy, but making a living is much harder in some places than in others.

Here are the Top 10 worst states for making a living:

  1. Hawaii. The islands of Hawaii may be a terrific place to spend a vacation, but they are a difficult place to try to make a living. Hawaii ranks as the worst of all states for making a living. Why? Cost of living is the main issue. Hawaii has the highest cost of living of any state. One of the biggest reasons why cost of living is so great in the state is higher than average housing expenses. According to Zillow, the median home value of a house in Hawaii is $537,300, which could price some buyers out of the market. Additionally,  salaries in the state do not compensate for its high cost of living - the average wage in Hawaii is about typical for the rest of the nation. Hawaii has one of the highest income tax rates of any state. Adjusted for taxes and the cost of living, workers in Hawaii get the equivalent value of just 55 cents for every dollar they make.
  2. Oregon. Cost of living and taxes were also leading factors in why Oregon finished as the second-worst state for making a living, dropping 11 places in the 50-state ranking from last year. The cost of living in Oregon is not as high as in Hawaii, but it is 28.5 percent higher than the national average. Wages are only a little above of the national average, so they don't adequately compensate for the high cost of living and taxes. The estimate of state tax on average income in Oregon is $3,981.50. On top of those economic disadvantages, Oregon also had one of the highest rates of workplace safety incidents. In March 2015, Oregon noted that there was a slight rise in worker fatalities in 2014 from the previous year.
  3. Maine. The biggest negative factor affecting workers in Maine is a high workplace incidence rate. Maine is tied for the highest frequency of workplace illness, injuries and fatalities. The state had 5.3 workplace incidents per 100 workers. On top of that, the average wage in Maine is below the national standard at $42,140, even though the cost of living is more than above average. Job growth in the state is forecast to be sluggish compared to the rest of the nation. The Maine Department of Labor predicts just 2.3 percent in employment gains between 2012 and 2022.
  4. West Virginia. Unemployment remains a big problem in West Virginia, where the 7 percent rate of joblessness is second highest in the nation. Once you do find a job in West Virginia, chances are it won't pay very well - West Virginia has one of the lowest average wages in the country, despite a slightly above-average cost of living.
  5. Vermont. Like neighboring Maine, Vermont suffers from a combination of below-average wages and an above-average cost of living. Vermont is tied with Maine for the highest frequency of workplace safety incidents. Only a lower unemployment rate and a lower tax rate help Vermont finish a little better than Maine as a place to make a living.
  6. California. Despite having one of the highest average wages in the nation, California could not overcome several negative attributes. That average wage is more than negated by high taxes and cost of living. On top of that, the unemployment rate and the frequency of workplace safety incidents are both higher in California than national average.
  7. Montana. Even though Montana has a low unemployment rate of just 4 percent, workers in the state don't seem to have much leverage with their employers. This is because average wages are well below the national standard. Montana is also among the worst states for workplace safety.
  8. South Dakota. This is another state where low unemployment - in this case just 3.6 percent - does not seem to be translating into higher wages. The average wage in South Dakota is even lower than in Montana, though having no state income tax and a better record for workplace safety allow South Dakota to fare slightly better in these rankings than Montana.
  9. Rhode Island. Coming in ninth-worst on this list is hardly reason to cheer, but it actually represents an improvement for Rhode Island, which was fourth from the bottom last year. Rhode Island's biggest problem is high unemployment, and even its above-average wages are not enough to make up for the high cost of living.
  10.  Connecticut. Like neighboring Rhode Island, Connecticut improved by five spots this year, but still landed in the bottom 10. High unemployment is a problem in Connecticut, and even having one of the highest average wages in the country is not enough to make up for the cost of living in the state. Workplace safety is also a concern in Connecticut.

Ranking is based on performance across all featured metrics:

RankStateCOL IndexAverage IncomeState Tax on Average IncomeUnemployment RateWork Incidents/100 Workers
47West Virginia104.8$37,880$1,479.6073.8
43South Dakota101.3$37,300$
42Rhode Island123.3$49,570$1,858.886.13.7

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Council for Community and Economic Research, Tax Foundation, MoneyRates research

Best States to Make a Living

Full Ranking of 50 States

Didn't see your state named one of the Best or the Worst? Here's the full list.

Ranking is based on performance across all featured metrics:

RankStateCOL IndexAverage IncomeState Tax on Average IncomeUnemployment RateWork Incidents/100 Workers
16North Dakota100.1$44,100$613.623.13.7
24North Carolina96.3$43,280$2,488.605.52.9
29New Jersey124.2$53,920$1,486.586.53.4
34New Hampshire117.4$47,060$
35New Mexico100.0$42,230$1,789.776.23.5
39South Carolina95.5$39,570$2,280.306.73.2
40New York136.1$55,630$3,253.445.73
42Rhode Island123.3$49,570$1,858.886.13.7
43South Dakota101.3$37,300$
47West Virginia104.8$37,880$1,479.6073.8

Tell us: What's your home state and how would you rate your quality of life and economic prospects? Were they as you imagined?

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Ashley 14 May 2016 at 6:50 pm

I call BS for Idaho. I am an Idaho native, Boise to be exact. We are a low wage state and cost of living is high for the wages. We are taxed for everything, education sucks here, drop out rates are high, drug use is high. A lot of people say they take a pay cut to move here because they " Here how great and cheap it is. " They see within a few years that they cannot make it here anymore and leave. Unless they are one of the Californians that sell their house in California and pay cash for a house here. Housing is not cheap here though. Property taxes are high too.

John 1 February 2016 at 1:21 am

Washington is horrible for anyone not working at A tech company. Amazon and Microsoft ha e single handedly made it impossible to find an affordable place to live anywhere near where you work. With commutes into Seattle and Bellevue at 90 minutes from Everett and Tacoma sometimes at 2 hours. The new toll lanes on 405 made traffic way worse. Sales tax at almost 10%. Gas is always higher then the national average by far. High crime in Seattle with the huge homeless problem. Eastern Washingtons low cost of living makes this number look better then it is. $1700 a month for a crappy 1bd in Renton is ridiculous. Also the tunnel project in Seattle is a nightmare and should be filled in with concrete and admit the mistake and take the cost but no they want to finish it at currently 3 years behind and 3x the cost. A bridge would have been finished and at 1/5th the cost. Mayor of Seattle is a joke.

David in Ardmore 20 January 2016 at 1:44 am

While Alabama is listed as I expected, there is a great economic and social duplicity about this state. If the state were rougly cut in half, one part would likely bein the top 10 of best places to live, while the other might be among the worst places. Alabama is a fairly large and beautiful place despite the naysayers, and deserves exploring and consideration.

Venus 19 January 2016 at 3:42 am

I move from Knoxville, TN to Jacksonville, FL (which I am regret to made that move)with the same company I am working with when was hired in Fl they wanted to lower my wage, rents and jobs in Fl are hard to find and very low pay, the rents and everything is way too expensive for one single person. TN may have a high sale tax but definitely the rents and pay are higher than Fl, helps for children is lot better in TN including health insurances and rates are decent. So bad that list did not include TN as one of the best states and FL as one of the worst, having a part time in TN I still was able to have some money for other things here in Fl everything is money my car insurance rate raised from 67 mthly to 193 in Fl same company due to the state and other things, looking to move back to TN or maybe NC .

danielle grover 8 January 2016 at 8:07 am

Maine is lousy. They hire you based on appearance regardless of what you have to offer. I was declined a job due to not owning enough of their clothing. Also didnt get accepted at llbean because im lesbian, they told me i wasnt there type to hire. And also, many other places wont give you a chance if you dont have experience yet how can you obtain experience if you cant get a job...

Defenderman 17 December 2015 at 5:56 am

Oregon may be the 2nd worst due to high taxes and ridiculous property values, but we still have adequate water, lots of trees and a pretty awesome big city vibe. Having lived here all my life, all I can say is that I'm glad I am able to maintain my standard of living. If you can't afford to live here, please don't move here. We are done paying for the slackers who want to call Portland home. Just because we have Portlandia and Grimm filmed here, doesn't mean it's the same as on TV.

Tommy G 7 December 2015 at 8:23 am

Forgot to mention, that Hawaii has a "Ohana" law that allows home owners to build a cottage on their property along with the house. In the 30 years i have had it, rents from it has paid for my home almost 2x.

Tommy G 7 December 2015 at 8:13 am

I live in Hawaii and if you can get past the cost of a home, it is not that expensive to live here. Real estate taxes are about the lowest in the nation. Home and auto insurance is much lower that most of the nation. You don't have to heat your home or buy winter clothes. Your car won't rust out unless you live right on the windward coast. Some people can live off of the land with a year round growing season. I buy groceries at Costco which is cheaper than most mainland supermarkets. With clean air and water and year round mild climate, life expectancy is number 1 here. That must count towards "living".By the way, about half the homes sold here are to foreign or mainland buyers......people with $$.

Jeff Musall 8 November 2015 at 4:18 am

This is, as someone else pointed out, skewered to favor states with no income tax. Washington, for example, has an overall higher tax burden than Oregon. The same flawed methods lift Texas, which, by the way, has the highest level of uninsured children, 2nd highest poverty rate, one of the lowest high school completion rates, among the highest environmental cancer rates, and the list could go on. I live in Oregon and am more than happy with our ability to make a living as compared to that place.

Jason 2 November 2015 at 9:47 pm

Jimmyz, As a resident of Wyoming, I gotta disagree with your logic. We have no income tax, a 4% sales tax, zero tax on food, no corporate tax, and property taxes are less than other states I have lived in. Wages here are higher than other places, despite what this chart indicates.

MLM 26 October 2015 at 10:03 pm

13 yr transplant from Philadelphia to Texas, specifically Austin for 8 years now. For what it is worth I think the whole state is suffering because oil prices have been so low. Lots of established businesses rely on that money and the ripple effects of it. Construction is back(my field, after dying 5 years ago. Austin: Reasonable living is over in my opinion. Some reasons: The ripple effect of oil i.e. Lower fundraising amounts for university, the long slow devolution of DELL along with layoffs, skyrocketing rents and property sales(we sold after 6 yrs this summer), the 20 somethings I see day to day are making not much more than I was 20 years ago. Overall, there is a big, negative gap in cost of living vs wages unless folks are in certain tech or medical fields.

JimmyZ 24 September 2015 at 8:56 pm

Appreciate attempts at lists like these but using income tax only is always a flaw of these lists and artificially boosts no income states rankings. First, states with no (or low) income tax often make up for that shortfall with higher property tax, sales tax, and/or "fees" such as car registration. So states like Washington have tax structures that are the most regressive; they collect more tax as percent of income from lower wage earners making it even tougher to survive the higher cost of living. 2) stated income tax rates can be useless as often states have different rates for different incomes and various exemptions can drastically reduce income tax due....hence the effective income tax paid can be quite different than the stated figures used in this study.

K. Gamble 15 July 2015 at 3:17 am

My husband and I moved to Oklahoma two and half years ago after having lived in both New York and California. While I prefer the weather in Western New York (near the border with Canada) our lifestyle is much improved here. He makes nearly 3x what they say the average income is here and we are able to own a very nice home that we could never have had in either of those states.

Suzanne 15 July 2015 at 12:05 am

I'm in Tampa Florida and am very hard pressed to find a job that paus ore than $9/hr. Used to making $50,000 /yr and can't find a job. I have a background in hotel and property management. Too many call centers filling the market. Quality of life here...stressful with no income and almost out of savings.

Rich 14 July 2015 at 11:27 am

Liberal policies Will continue to drain everyone's pockets.

Pauline 11 July 2015 at 11:28 am

I live in NY. Got my masters in teaching four years ago. Had to quit my teaching job to complete my degree. Ouch! I've not had but a single teaching interview in four years of applying to hundreds of jobs. And I have three certifications. That single interview was last month for a substitute job, an underemployed, random job that won't pay the bills or my ludicrous property taxes. I have to sell my home of 8 years just to survive. Disappointed!!!!!!

nicole 10 July 2015 at 6:04 pm

I live in Oregon and I couldn't agree more with this state being number 2 worst state to get ahead and make a living. We have 2 kids and one income because daycare is extremely expensive. My husband works very very hard and makes a decent amount of money, but we still live paycheck to paycheck. The cost of living here is absolutely to blame! To rent our small 800 sq ft apartment is close to $1000 a month and that doesn't include power and food. It's tough to keep your head above water here. It would be nice if the Oregon government would recognize these problems and do something more for the people of Oregon who are constantly struggling to make ends meet.

Nick bradley 7 July 2015 at 4:10 pm

texas has a massive, crushing property tax instead of an income tax that is paid primarily by middle class taxpayers.Your CA tax estimate is significantly off. Just going off the 540EZ schedule for single and no kids, you inflated their tax bill by 25%. CA has high taxes, but really only for those who make more than $100k, and really $200k

Beth 7 July 2015 at 1:19 pm

Time to move out of CT

dean 7 July 2015 at 4:34 am

Not susprized hawaii has corupted politicians,government,police etc....hawaii isnt paradise if you live here....duh....mainlanders....

Tony 7 July 2015 at 12:49 am

Doesn't seem very scientific if this excludes sales taxes. Oregon does have a somewhat higher state income tax, but has no sales tax.

Mary Ellen 7 July 2015 at 12:29 am

Glad to see Michigan in the top 10. The quality of life is a direct result of union presence, as is the great workplace safety rate. Coupled with natural wonders, two peninsulas, we think everyone should see Mochigan - especially the Soo Locks, 4 of the Great Lakes, and the Mackinaw Bridge.f

Dean 6 July 2015 at 10:12 pm

For starters 1. you have to find someone willing to work. 2. that doesn't believe they should start at the top and go up,from there. 3. that is capable of doing work with the quality of more than $3/hr. 4. Won't rob you blind or abuse everything. That's for starters. They don't take into consideration that $350 rent for a house here is equivelant to $1000 in some trashy city. Nor the fact the quality of life and the air you breathe here is 10 times better. But is everything right?

Joe Matteo 6 July 2015 at 9:26 pm

As already mentioned sales taxes should be taken into account as should property taxes

Kathryn 6 July 2015 at 8:54 pm

I was surprised to see Ohio on the top 10 list. I just relocated here and perhaps the state income tax is lower than other places, but there is the local city income tax added on top of that. Those two taxes combined make it MUCH worse that other states! Add that to the lower than average wages and I doubt Ohio is a top 10 state.

Colleen LaRose 6 July 2015 at 6:08 pm

I am surprised that states with more worker protections..such as states that are NOT right to work states, are not afforded some quality points in your review.

eric 6 July 2015 at 11:27 am

It would be interesting to include more tax basis. Oregon has no sales tax, where Washington, Texas and other states with n income tax have comparatively high sales taxes.

Jim Christensen 5 July 2015 at 10:41 pm

It appears that perhaps you didn't take the fact that neither Oregon nor Montana have a state sales tax when calculating the state tax for them.