Rural and small metropolitan Nebraska should continue to focus on increasing education attainment and economic competitiveness.
The Nebraska Thriving Index is a benchmarking tool that compares Nebraska regions with their peers around the upper Midwest on 47 measures of economic performance and conditions. First developed in 2019 by a team of social scientists from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK), the index utilizes data from a variety of sources from recent years and strives to provide rural residents and decision-makers with information for economic development and policy analysis.
Just as importantly, it aims to help rural regions answer a basic question: "How is our economy doing?"
The Nebraska Thriving Index indicated that in 2020, most rural regions of Nebraska were doing quite well, particularly when it comes to quality of life. However, Nebraska's rural regions faced challenges in areas including education attainment, cost-competitiveness and infrastructure. The 2020 index also found that the Tri-Cities (Kearney, Grand Island, Hastings) and North 81 (Columbus and Norfolk) regions are the top-performing rural regions in Nebraska.
Other results varied by region, said Eric Thompson, Nelson Professor of Economics at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and one of the developers of the Index. Even so, several trends emerged.
Nebraska regions generally lead their peers in measures of quality of life, such as commute times, crime rates and health care access. They tend to lag behind their peers in education and skill, as well as key aspects of economic competitiveness such as infrastructure and cost of doing business.
"Rural and small metropolitan Nebraska should continue to focus on increasing education attainment and economic competitiveness," Thompson said.
The index also indicates that Nebraska's smaller metropolitan areas are doing particularly well. Regions that included small cities like Norfolk, Kearney and Hastings clearly led their peers in terms of economic prosperity and conditions.
"Compared to similarly situated regions in the upper Midwest, Nebraska's micropolitan and small metropolitan regions are doing well," said Bree Dority, associate professor of finance at UNK. "In addition to performing well on quality-of-life indicators, these regions also rank ahead of their peers when it comes to growth in households with children, growth in total employment, and in business and entrepreneurial activity."
The Panhandle and Siouxland (Dakota and Dixon counties) regions lagged their peers. In addition to competitiveness and education, economic and demographic growth were key challenges for the Panhandle. The Siouxland region also struggled with economic diversity, opportunity and stability. Other regions of Nebraska, including the Sandhills, scored near their peer average.
The Nebraska Thriving Index explores key measures of economic prosperity, such as economic growth, opportunity, diversity and stability, as well as key measures of economic conditions, such as demographic growth, education, cost of doing business, infrastructure, quality of life and social capital. Detailed findings from the 2020 Nebraska Thriving Index, based on data from before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, are available at ruralprosperityne.unl.edu/thriving-index.
The research team for the 2020 Nebraska Thriving Index included Eric Thompson and Mitch Herian of Nebraska's Bureau of Business Research and Bree Dority of UNK's College of Business and Technology. The Thriving Index is supported by Rural Prosperity Nebraska.