How Might California Really Rank as a Country?

1024 576 Patrick Atwater

(Photo: Bob Wick/BLM; Illustration: John Guenther/CA FWD)

The United States Prosperity Index, created by our friends at the Legatum Institute, a London based think-tank, utilizes 216 publicly available indicators to measure the prosperity of the 50 states of the Union and Washington D.C. The 2021 Index positions California 25th out of 51, up from 35th a decade previously.

With the fifth largest economy in the world, ahead of both India and the UK, Governor Gavin Newsom often describes California as a “nation-state.” Yet how does California actually compare to other countries around the world?

The Legatum Institute developed the state-level Index drawing on the intellectual rigor of their global Prosperity IndexTM, which they have been producing for the past 15 years. This Index provides a comprehensive look at prosperity within 167 nations using almost three hundred indicators. The state level Index and the global Index provide a new means to investigate how California compares globally in key areas like education, living conditions, its natural environment and other key pillars of prosperity.

That broad picture of how states and countries are performing across the three domains of inclusive societies, open economies and empowered people provides the means to reasonably map how California is doing to the most comparable countries across the globe.

In the area of living conditions, one of the pillars within the Index, California is most similar to Poland, which ranks 31st globally. That pillar of prosperity tracks aspects like access to clean water, shelter and adequate nutrition. California’s ongoing housing crisis is among the worst in the world, pushing home ownership and affordable rent out of reach for far too many Californians.

In terms of Education, another pillar of prosperity that tracks performance across the different stages of education, utilizing indicators like early childhood education and graduation rates, California is broadly similar to Latvia, the small country of 1.9 million in the former Soviet Bloc. Latvia has a GDP per capita of 17,619 or 22% of California. In contrast, Massachusetts has an education system that’s more akin to world leading Singapore, the top performing country for education.

California ranks below the national average in spending per student. Within the state, education levels vary dramatically. Early childhood education levels range from 20% in Amador County to 74% in San Francisco County, which you can see in California Forward’s own California Dream Index here, a data platform tracking 10 indicators of social mobility. The U.S. Prosperity Index also provides an assessment of the prosperity of each of California’s 58 counties. Further information can be found here.

Home to iconic locations like Big Sur and Yosemite national park, California is world famous for its beauty. Legatum’s Natural Environment pillar tracks air quality, forest health, and other preservation efforts. In that area, California compares most closely to Norway, which ranks 9th globally in this pillar. Alongside the natural environment, California also performs well on the Infrastructure and Market Access and Economic Quality pillars, comparable to Sweden and Netherlands respectively.

California has a tremendous opportunity in the decade ahead to build on those strengths and address long standing unevenness in the economy. California Forward just released its 2022 Roadmap for Shared Prosperity, showcasing the opportunity to build a more equitable economy across the state, by providing housing for all, building climate resiliency, investing in broadband, and other key areas. Learn more and see the full Roadmap here.


The methodology for these global comparisons can be found here. More information about the Legatum Institute US and Global Prosperity Indices can be found on their website here.


Patrick Atwater

All stories by: Patrick Atwater