Photo/Dennis Myers Economic development consultant Chuck Alvey read a survey that questioned opportunity in Nevada, but he had a somewhat different view.

If a Nevadan wants the best opportunities for her or his children, it would be best to raise them somewhere else. Aspiring businesspeople might also look elsewhere for opportunity.

Those, at any rate, are the implications of a survey of the states conducted jointly by the Social Science Research Council in Brooklyn and Opportunity Nation in Boston. The survey ranked states, the District of Columbia, and the United States generally by their economies, education, and civic engagement—the degree to which residents are involved in community activities.

Nevada placed 52—dead last.

The ranking is a setback to those promoting the state as a place to live and do business, and the study has received considerable attention, meaning Nevada’s place in it is getting exposure.

For example, days after the study was released, New York Times columnist Charles Blow mentioned it, and Washington Monthly magazine did a cover package of stories on the findings.

On the overall opportunity index, Nevada ranked 37.9 compared to a national average of 50.9. On the strength of its economy, it ranked 44.99 compared to 49.4 nationally. Its education system scored 25.91 compared to a national figure of 49.3, and on its sense of community, it was at 42.81 compared to 54.1 nationally.

Compared to its regional competitors, Nevada also did poorly. Arizona had an economy ranking of 46.3, education was 41.4, and community was 45.5. Utah is at 58.5 in its economy, 48.3 in education, 61.8 in community.

In more local rankings, Washoe County scored 44.0 overall for opportunity, 50.4 in its economy, 39.1 in education and 42.4 in community.

This is how the three indices were researched:

• To determine the strength of state and local economies, the surveyors examined things like job market indicators, unemployment, income equity, housing affordability, poverty levels, and access to banking.

• In education they examined preschool enrollment, high school graduation rates (and how many graduations happened on schedule), and number of adults with college degrees (associate degrees included).

• Community was ranked by membership in civic groups, churches, sports leagues, plus the level of young people who were both without jobs and out of school (“adrift at society’s margins”), health care rankings, rates of volunteerism and violent crime.

To some extent, the study’s findings are at war with themselves. They find U.S. residents less willing to move from place to place in search of better jobs, yet also find people unwilling to become rooted and involved in a community.

The Washington Monthly, a publication favored by policy wonks, noted, “In some regions (the Northeast and the Upper Midwest), citizens are far more engaged in civic activities and connected with each other than in other areas (the Deep South and Nevada).”

It also reported, “In recent years, the bursting of the housing bubble, which has left millions of American homeowners owing more on their mortgages than their houses are worth, has surely been a factor in depressing the number of people moving. Yet it turns out that the phenomenon of ’housing lock’ has played surprisingly little role in driving down migration rates even during the worst years of the Great Recession. For example, rates of migration have fallen equally for homeowners and renters. And in the states with the worst housing markets, such as Nevada and Arizona, unemployed workers have been no more or less likely to move than in states with the best housing markets. Moreover, taking the longer view, rates of migration were falling year after year even when the housing boom was on and most home sellers could walk away from a settlement with a huge check.”

Nevada state demographer Jeff Hardcastle said he does not have figures to either confirm or deny these findings.

“In looking at net migration—ins less outs—Nevada lost some population towards the end of the decade and the start of this one, but it has been minimal,” he said.

But he added that the research on the question is less than conclusive.

The other hand

Former Economic Development of Western Nevada (EDAWN) director Chuck Alvey, now an executive coach with Vistage International, said he is skeptical of surveys like the opportunity index.

“I used to do those in television research,” he said. Alvey is a former general manager of KOLO in Reno.

“If you take this column out and that column in, you can make it say anything,” he said.

Moreover, he believes, such surveys are not the kind of thing businesspeople turn to when they are deciding if and where to relocate.

“If I’m a company exec looking to relocate somewhere, I’m not going to be looking at that stuff,” he said. At EDAWN, he found that such decisions were not based on what most people think.

“Most of the time their decision was pretty personal—they relocated because they liked a place. They ran all the numbers and then the CEO went where he or she wanted to live.”

He conceded of the opportunity index, “It’s objective,” but said its main use in economic development would be as ammunition for communities competing with each other.

“If there’s another community that we’re in competition with, that’s the kind of stuff they will use against us,” he said.

There was an exception.

“If I’m a teeny company, I might be willing to look at it.”

Even when companies do look at statistics, they generally zero in on certain types of statistics, depending on what their needs are, he said.

“If a business owner who pays low wages is looking at a market, he’s probably going to be spending a lot of time on the labor pool,” he said.

“The opportunity index is another tool that people have, but one size does not usually fit all. Where it might be of greater use is to college students.”

He summed up his reaction to the index: “This is a composite of people making their own opportunities in different places. Some places may seem to make achieving opportunities easier yet there are many successful people right here. Each person has control over how they manage the opportunities around them and the opportunities they find and/or create. Some miss or mess up good opportunities and others make much out of slim-to-great opportunities, wherever they live.”

Avatar photo

Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...