North Carolina ranks among the bottom 10 states in the country on Politico’s new State Pandemic Scorecard. The Tar Heel State’s overall ranking of No. 41 combines high marks for health and the economy with low scores for social well-being and education.

“From the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the toughest decisions about how to combat the virus fell on state leaders,” wrote Sean McMinn and Liz Crampton.

“The answers weren’t obvious,” they added. “State officials had limited information about the virus, and the trade-offs were difficult. Protect residents’ health and instruct them to stay home – but risk driving companies out of business and accelerating unemployment. Keep businesses open – but risk a rise in hospitalizations and deaths. Close schools to control spread – but risk damaging kids’ education.”

No state fared well in all four categories Politico measured. “There was no optimal set of choices, no perfect path a governor or other state officials could have taken,” McMinn and Crampton wrote. “Every choice came with negative consequences, some known ahead of time, some only discovered or appreciated months later.”

Politico does not argue that its four categories should be weighted equally. “If every category were given equal weight — which assumes each priority was of equivalent importance, a policy choice in itself — the top scorer overall would be Nebraska, … despite scoring below the national average in the social well-being category. Maryland would be second.”

North Carolina’s No. 41 ranking places the Tar Heel State just ahead of neighbors South Carolina (No. 42) and Tennessee (No. 43). Virginia (No. 23) ranked highest among our neighbors, with Georgia ranking slightly ahead of North Carolina at No. 39.

Within the four categories, North Carolina fared best in the economic ranking. The state ranked No. 12, higher than neighboring states. Nebraska ranked No. 1. Among Southeastern states, only Mississippi (No. 8) topped North Carolina. Most of the top economic performers were located in the West and Southwest.

North Carolina ranked closer to the middle of the pack in the health category at No. 21. Vermont topped the list in that category. Among our neighbors, Virginia ranked No. 13, with South Carolina (No. 33), Tennessee (No. 36), and Georgia (No. 48) all trailing the Tar Heel State.

In the education ranking, North Carolina dropped to No. 43 among the states. South Dakota topped that list, and only Virginia (No. 44) scored lower among our neighbors.

Politico labeled education “the most difficult policy area to assess.”

“The education score was derived from changes in reading and math assessments from each state’s pre-pandemic baseline to spring 2021,” McMinn and Crampton wrote. “Many districts and schools also experienced drops in enrollment during the pandemic as students struggled to make the transition to online or hybrid education or experienced family difficulties. As a result, we also included change in public school enrollment in the education score.”

Politico places education rankings in perspective of a state’s overall response to the pandemic. “The main takeaway from this data backs up the consensus view in the education community that schools who had more days of in-person school have seen less learning loss in their students,” McMinn and Crampton wrote. “Those decisions to keep students in school, of course, came with risks in other areas, and as with other categories in the scorecard, those trade-offs need to be weighed against their downsides: Many of the states whose students appear at this point to have done better also experienced poorer health outcomes”

North Carolina earned its lowest ranking (No. 45) in the category of social well-being. Only Arkansas, South Dakota, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Wyoming fared worse. Hawaii topped that list, and neighbor Virginia ranked No. 7.

Politico based its social well-being ranking “on the change in three metrics – food insecurity, households’ economic hardship, and violent crime — comparing states’ indicators to where they were before or early in the pandemic.”

McMinn and Crampton provided a further clue that North Carolina’s low marks in that category might have had more to do with Politico’s policy preferences than with people’s actual well-being. “With the federal government providing vast amounts of economic aid, a state’s score on food insecurity and household expenses during the pandemic largely reflects a state’s ability to implement those federal programs and get aid to residents who need it,” they wrote.

The rankings led Politico to a general conclusion. “What the scorecard shows is that the pandemic has played out in vastly different ways across America, and that those state decisions had real-life impacts.”