Iowa logs two number 1 rankings—but one's nothing to brag about

Kurt Meyer writes a weekly column for the Nora Springs – Rockford Register and the Substack newsletter Showing Up, where this essay first appeared. He serves as chair of the executive committee (the equivalent of board chair) of Americans for Democratic Action, America’s most experienced liberal organization.

The financial services company “Bankrate” recently named Iowa the best state to retire in. I admit to being a bit surprised. The company scored 50 states on five metrics: affordability (40 percent), health care cost and quality (20 percent), a vague category entitled “community wellbeing” (25 percent), weather (10 percent), and crime rate (5 percent). Iowa dislodged Florida from last year’s highest ranking; Florida fell to #8.

Rounding out the top five are Delaware, West Virginia, Missouri, and Mississippi. Without intending to sound harsh, these states don’t strike me as being exactly heaven on earth. But then, I guess we all can make our own assessment of what constitutes the good life. Mine is below.

Here’s how Iowa won: Evaluators noted our friendly citizens in a peaceful countryside, contributing to a relaxed — and affordable — lifestyle. We’re the sixth least expensive place, due largely to modest housing costs. Nationally, the median home price is $388,800; in Iowa, it’s $239,400. Iowa is near the middle on taxes, 23rd for property taxes, 22nd for state and local sales taxes. And, the study noted, “If you’re looking for retirement-age friends, you’ll have a good chance of finding them in this state as well, where nearly 20 percent of the population is age 65 and older.”

It wasn’t all bouquets for Iowa, however. From Bankrate’s write-up:

Meanwhile, for potential retirees seeking a cultural melting pot and warm weather, Iowa may not be a good choice. It ranks poorly for racial and ethnic diversity, and its community-well being index is subpar. It also is generally colder in Iowa and has a high incidence of tornadoes, which may not be appealing for many retirees.

So, how do you think our state stacks up? Bear in mind, this study focused on retirees, when affordability and health care tend to rise in importance. Many in my age cohort prefer a more diverse age base, when expansion needs are greater for elementary schools than for nursing homes. Count me among them.

I’ve not seen a recent study on the best place to raise a family. Presumably, affordability would also be weighted highly, but Iowa’s slumping educational rankings may offset some of that advantage. It’s also possible that high marks for affordability rest on low wages, an undesirable factor for many young families.

Other factors I’d emphasize in the community well-being category are accessible places to explore nature/the outdoors, plus nearby arts and cultural amenities. Iowa probably scores near the middle in these qualities. True, we don’t possess the Grand Canyon, but we have mighty rivers, east and west. We lack Minnesota’s lakes but boast terrific trout streams and navigable waterways. Granted, retirees with significant physical limitations might not benefit from these assets. And, unfortunately, many of our creeks, rivers, and lakes are shamefully more polluted than they should be.       

One additional observation about quality of life. Iowa’s vibrant two- and four-year colleges and the state’s university system attract and retain much of what makes Iowa special: faculty, staff, and especially students, many of whom launch careers here after graduation. Energy and enlightenment pulsate from our state’s campuses, flavoring their communities and to a lesser extent, our whole state.

A short while after Iowa’s glowing retirement ranking came out, we scored another number one, in a negative assessment. We have the most structurally deficient bridges in the country. According to the 2023 report from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, using data from the Federal Highway Administration Bridge Inventory, Iowa has almost 15,000 bridges requiring attention, more than any other state. For comparison, Illinois, a state the same size, has just over 4,000.

This isn’t new news, which makes it more disappointing. Of the 23,720 bridges in Iowa, 4,558 (about 19.2 percent) are classified as structurally deficient, meaning at least one element is in poor or worse condition. This is a very modest decrease from 4,575 structurally deficient bridges in 2019. In four years, we’ve improved a mere seventeen bridges.

Come on, Iowa: let’s do better! After all, what’s the benefit of affordability if we can’t safely cross a stream?  

Editor’s note from Laura Belin: Reports have long cited Iowa as one of the worst states for structurally deficient bridges. Bleeding Heartland covered one such study in 2011.

Top photo of old metal bridge in Madison County, Iowa is by Susan Natoli and available via Shutterstock.

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  • The federal government & commercial/market interests don't need many people in Iowa anymore & we will continue to lose population.

    Leaving aside the deplorable state of elder care in our state (the Capital Dispatch is very good covering this area) housing is generally cheap in Iowa because it’s not in demand, and housing in places like Iowa City which have the kinds of amenities (including hospitals that aren’t going under) that most retirees desire is quite expensive (comparable with cities like Omaha and Kansas City ). The Gov and company are quite determined to continue to defund (and otherwise degrade) public education, including state universities, which will gut IC & Ames and and we will end up like Missouri or Arkansas, states which are crumbling around their citizens if we don’t embrace degrowth/right-sizing.
    former teacher and resistance organizer Jess Piper is @piper4missouri is letting us know how that will go: