Index: High rural quality of life, economic struggles |

Index: High rural quality of life, economic struggles

Lincoln, Nebraska, Aug. 20, 2020 — The 2020 Nebraska Thriving Index indicates residents of Nebraska’s rural regions experience a high quality of life but face challenges in areas including education attainment, cost-competitiveness and infrastructure. The Thriving Index also finds that the Tri-Cities (Kearney, Grand Island, Hastings) and North 81 (Columbus and Norfolk) regions are the top-performing rural regions in Nebraska.

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. The index is developed by a team of social scientists from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and University of Nebraska at Kearney under the leadership of Rural Prosperity Nebraska. 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, as well as to answer the basic question “How is our economy doing?”

Results of the 2020 Nebraska Thriving Index vary by region, but several themes emerge.

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,” said Eric Thompson, Nelson Professor of economics at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

The index also indicates that Nebraska’s smaller metropolitan areas are doing particularly well. The North 81 and Tri-Cities regions clearly lead 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 two 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

The research team for the 2020 Nebraska Thriving Index includes Eric Thompson and Mitch Herian of Nebraska’s Bureau of Business Research and Bree Dority of UNK’s College of Business and Technology. Launched in 2020, Rural Prosperity Nebraska brings together the intellectual capital of students and researchers from across the University of Nebraska system with the boots-on-the-ground work of Nebraska Extension educators committed to rural success across the state.

–UNL Extension

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