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Best and Worst States for Veterans

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Every November, on Veterans Day, Americans honor the service and commitment that veterans have given to protect our country. While civilians and veterans may share similar financial issues, veterans may be in a unique position by relying on services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and navigating civilian life after military service.

LendingTree researchers set out to find which states may be better suited for veterans based on factors such as unemployment and poverty rates among vets, the population density of veterans and the quality and availability of local VA medical facilities.

The best state for any veteran may hinge on personal factors and preferences, but these rankings give insight into how accommodating states are for former service members.

Key findings

  • South Dakota is the best state for veterans. The Mount Rushmore State saw the biggest jump in the percentage of veterans (0.3%) between 2018 and 2019 — the latest available data. The state also has the second-lowest veterans unemployment rate.
  • Top-rated VA hospitals and growing veteran populations are common among the best states overall. All five states with the best average VA hospital quality rankings and four of the five with the fastest-growing veteran populations appear in the 10 best states overall.
  • California is the worst state for veterans. Quite the opposite of North Dakota, California has the worst housing costs relative to the percentage of income earned by veterans. In the Golden State, veterans need to spend 40% of their earnings, on average, to afford housing.
  • High housing costs could be pricing veterans out of the 10 worst ranked states. Three of the states with the highest housing costs-to-veteran income ratios also have three of the smallest veteran populations — California, Illinois and New Jersey.

The Dakotas welcome veterans

Low housing costs and strongly rated VA hospitals help South Dakota and North Dakota rank as the No. 1 and No. 2 best states for veterans. South Dakota has grown increasingly popular for veterans, seeing the largest increase in veteran population (0.3%) between 2018 and 2019 — the latest available data. The second-lowest unemployment rate among veterans in South Dakota (3.3%) also gives it an edge over its northern sibling.

North Dakota might make a more affordable option, however, with housing costs running at just 20% of average veteran income, compared with 24% in South Dakota. However, unemployment is way more common among veterans in North Dakota at 8.4%.

“Some veterans may never have held a civilian job before, so just adjusting to job interviews and other aspects of the job search can be difficult and potentially keep them from getting jobs as quickly or with as much pay as they might like,” LendingTree chief credit analyst Matt Schulz says. The VA offers various resources, from job listings to resume building, to help veterans obtain employment after their service.

Two other Midwestern states — No. 6 Nebraska and No. 7 Iowa — join the Dakotas to give the region four of the 10 best states for veterans. Nebraska features the lowest unemployment rate — 2.7% — for veterans among all states.

10 best states for veterans
Rank State
1 South Dakota
2 North Dakota
3 Idaho
4 Vermont
5 Virginia
6 Nebraska
7 Iowa
8 Montana
9 Delaware
10 Maine

Growing veteran populations, top-rated VA hospitals and low unemployment rates common among best states for veterans

Of the metrics used to rank the states, the 10 best states don’t rank particularly well for housing costs and poverty rates. The Dakotas are the only states from the top 10 that rank in the top 10 for lowest ratio of housing costs to veteran income.

With the third-lowest poverty rate (4.9%) among veterans in the U.S., Virginia does best in this category among top overall rated states. Nebraska and Vermont rank No. 9 and No. 10 nationally for veterans in poverty.

Of interest: Veterans are doing better than nonveterans when it comes to poverty rates. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, 6.7% of veterans report incomes below the poverty line, versus 11.4% of nonveterans.

All five states with the best average VA hospital quality rating appear in the 10 best states overall. The VA determines a quality score for each medical facility using metrics such as postoperative or other treatment complication rates. Idaho features the country’s best average VA hospital quality rating at 86.0. Vermont, South Dakota, North Dakota and Maine follow in that order.

Though the overall best states tend to do well in more than one category, no state dominates across the board. The best states for each metric are as follows:

  • Average VA hospital quality rating (among states with available data): Idaho (86.0)
  • Access to medical care rating: Vermont (90.9%)
  • Veterans as a percentage of the population: Alaska (10.7%)
  • Change in density of veterans, 2018-2019: South Dakota (0.3%)
  • Veteran unemployment rate: Nebraska (2.7%)
  • Housing costs as a percentage of veteran income: West Virginia (19%)
  • Veteran poverty rate: New Hampshire (4.6%)

High housing costs and unemployment rates make life more difficult for veterans

Among the worst overall states for veterans, high housing costs and high unemployment rates appear to be a running theme. California ranks as the worst state overall for veterans with the highest ratio of average housing costs to veteran income (40%) and the fifth-highest unemployment rate for vets (9.0%).

Though housing costs may be a little more affordable in second-worst ranked District of Columbia, the nation’s capital has the highest poverty rate among veterans — 11% — of all the states. A small veteran community, just 4.3% of its population, and the worst average VA hospital quality rating of states with available data (53.0) also bring the capital down in the general rankings.

Arizona comes next due in part to the second-highest unemployment rate for veterans (9.6%).

10 worst states for veterans
Rank State
1 California
2 District of Columbia
3 Arizona
4 Louisiana
5 Rhode Island
6 New York
7 Illinois
8 Hawaii
9 New Jersey
10 Nevada

Declining veteran populations contribute to poor overall rankings

It’s not all bad news for the least veteran-friendly states. The District of Columbia is the only state among the 10 worst overall to report positive growth for its veteran population with the third-highest increase in veteran population in the country — 0.2% — from 2018 to 2019.

Hawaii features the second-largest drop in veteran population of 1.1% in the same period, with Alaska recording the largest drop (1.9%). Unlike Hawaii, though, Alaska has the largest share of veterans of any state, helping it land closer to the middle of the overall rankings.

Though Rhode Island doesn’t fare too well in the overall rankings, it has the second-best rating in the nation for access to medical care at 90.8%. As with the top-rated states, the worst states for each metric often find themselves toward the bottom of the overall rankings as well:

  • Average VA hospital quality rating (among states with available data): District of Columbia (53.0)
  • Access to medical care rating: New Mexico (71.9%)
  • Veterans as a percentage of the population: New York (4.3%)
  • Change in density of veterans, 2018-2019: Alaska (-1.9%)
  • Veteran unemployment rate: Michigan (11.3%)
  • Housing costs as a percentage of veteran income: California (40%)
  • Veteran poverty rate: District of Columbia (11.0%)

Full rankings

Get your finances in line

Those expecting to leave the military and veterans who have already been discharged can take steps to help avoid financial turmoil and enjoy civilian life.

Use these tips to get your finances in line:

  • Figure out your budget. One of the benefits of military life may be having things like housing, food and even clothes paid for or picked out for you. But as a civilian, you need to budget all those things for yourself. Start by calculating how much money is coming in and how much you need to pay for your monthly expenses. “Once you’ve put that together, you can begin to prioritize your spending on what’s most important, as well as figuring out whether you need additional income from a side hustle, second job or something else,” Schulz says.
  • Make a plan to address any debt. If you’re carrying any debt, whether from credit cards or student loans, make sure you have a plan within your budget to stay on top of it. Veterans feeling overwhelmed with several different debts may benefit from using a military loan to consolidate debt.
  • Save for the future. Emergencies can happen to anyone, but veterans may run into additional problems like long-term injuries or illnesses from their service. This makes it even more prudent for veterans to maintain an emergency fund to help them cover medical bills or other bills in a crisis or during the loss of income. As you’re making your budget, make sure you set some funds aside for savings. Some situations, like a wedding or medical treatment, may call for a personal loan. Learn about the different types of loans to see if there’s a good option for you.

Methodology

To rank the best and worst states for veterans, researchers analyzed data for the following seven metrics — all based on the latest available information:

  • Quality of Veterans Affairs hospitals. Composite metric looks at different variables, from pressure ulcer rates to deaths with serious treatable complications after surgery. The metric was based on individual VA hospitals within each state and aggregated to get an overall number for the state. Alaska, Hawaii and New Hampshire didn’t have available information for this metric and were scored at 0 as a result. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Access to Care database, 2019.
  • Access to medical care. Percentage of veterans who reported they were always or usually able to get care when they needed it. The metric was based on individual VA hospitals within each state and aggregated to get an overall number for the state. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Access to Care database, June 2020 to November 2020.
  • Veterans as a percentage of the population. U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, 2019 one-year estimates.
  • Change in density of veterans. U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, 2018 and 2019 one-year estimates.
  • Veterans unemployment rate. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020.
  • Housing costs as a percentage of veteran income. Median housing costs divided by veterans’ median annual earnings. U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, 2019 one-year estimates.
  • Veterans poverty rate. U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, 2019 five-year estimates.

Analysts ranked each state in the metrics and then averaged each state’s ranking, with equal weight given to each. Analysts then assigned each state a score based on their average ranking.

 

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