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Monday, July 24, 2006

Best Places to Live

Money magazine just released their poorly-named Best Places to Live survey. Interested in how it happened that 8 of the top ten in the Midwest or South and that they all had populations between 57,000 and 230,000, I did the first thing you should always do when looking at statistics - I looked at the "how we massaged the numbers to get the result we wanted" section.

So what did they do first? Selected only places with over 50,000 people. This practically eliminates any possibility of not living in a development. McMansions here we come! So I guess all farms and small towns are terrible places to live? They don't explain why they made this choice or whether it reflects what most Americans would consider the "best" places to live.

Next they screened out cities with populations over 300,000 - again with no explanation given. They gave no consideration as to what falls within city limits either. One of the nicest places to live in the Philly area is Chestnut Hill - lots of beautiful houses, not McMansions, lots of open spaces, right on the train line (read: no need to sit in traffic jams), and within city limits.

In a completely unrelated move, they also eliminated 'retirement havens' where more than 40% of the population is over 50. First of all - just because people are over 50 doesn't mean they are retired, many people are working until 65 or even 70. According to this logic, I work at a 'retirement haven'. Also the baby boomers are turning 50 now - and many of them still have living parents, which is a lot of people over 50. This step (city and retirement haven elimination) drove the list from 670 cities to 201. Considering there are only around 60 cities with populations over 300,000, that's an awful lot of places eliminated simply because their population boomed during the 70's. More to the point, what's so bad about having elderly neighbors? They're quiet; they tend to keep their houses nice. You'll probably have good medical facilities nearby. They like kids. They have more leisure time to devote to church, volunteer groups, and cultural groups. Yeah, I don't understand this at all.

Next they removed places with "low education scores, high crime rates, absurdly high housing costs, declines in employment or income less than 90% of the state median". I can understand this step, although I wish they would have explained “absurdly high housing costs” as that is extremely vague.

However, they also eliminated "bedroom communities and places where people identify themselves as being from a smaller locale within the area." I haven't the faintest clue what the first refers to. For the second, I guess they assume that it's terrible to conveniently describe where you live. I'm from a very small town south of Buffalo. When people ask me I always say Buffalo because no one has ever heard of my small town. My guess is that they just assumed that where I'm from is just like Buffalo so they'll just lump us all together. Or they assumed that everyone meant that they worked in the well known city and had thus had terrible commutes. Basically this was just laziness and close-mindedness. "You mean you live 20 miles from Philly and don’t work there! Impossible"

After eliminating 73% of their list of cities with populations over 50,000 they finally got around to see what other people thought was important, or at least what other people like themselves thought was important. "A Money/ICR poll of 1,005 Americans found that ample job opportunities, good schools, and low crime are the most important characteristics people look for in a place to live ... the most disliked attributes are congestion, high crime, and lack of job opportunities." Hmm, this list was obviously taken off another poorly written 'survey'. Obviously if people want "ample job opportunities" they're not going to want the exact opposite. Also, what about asking what people like/dislike about where they currently live – not some fantasy about where they might want to live. Sure maybe they think they don’t want a commute, but if they actually lived in a place without a commute they’d hate it because it’s 10 hours from their favorite designer store. I know there are people here in the Philly suburbs that would rather die than live more than 20 minutes from a Coach store. They would probably faint if I told them people actually live more than 20 minutes from a Coach store.

To utilize their survey data, they ranked the "remaining places on economic opportunity, taking into account income, job growth and affordability; quality-of-life indicators, including risk of violent crime and property crime, quality of public schools, arts and leisure, park space and incidence of stress-related ailments; and "ease of living" gauges such as commute times, divorce rates, population density and weather." Ok, this favors married couples with children and traditional office jobs and where people are affluent, but not rich (because most rich people live in big cities, near big cities, or in rich communities that would qualify as 'retirement havens').

High(ish) income is not a direct indicator of happiness and having affluent neighbors is not necessarily a good thing. Personally I think most people would be much happier if they were the wealthiest person in their neighborhood, as opposed to making slightly more money but being the poorest. Think about it.

And what did they consider in the Arts & Leisure category? Movie theaters, Restaurants, Bars, Public golf courses, Libraries, Museums (accredited by AAM), Ski resorts. What about concert venues, performing arts venues, art galleries, botanical gardens and arboretums, % of good restaurants (their number includes fast food and chain restaurants), historical attractions, amusement parks, beaches, camp grounds, white water rafting, climbing gyms, dance studios, community sponsored cultural events (like Taste of [City], Movie Nights, Art Shows, etc.), etc? My biggest question – why just Skiing? This heavily favors location in the Rockies and Northeast and there are many, many people who don’t ski. Plus it was ski resorts in a 100 mile radius so the same resort could count for hundreds of cities, which just increases favoring a city in the Rockies.

After their rankings they got more data on "job markets, housing prices, schools, ambience, weather and taxes" as well as calling people on the phone. At the end they visited 20 of the cities and picked the "best" one.

Their conclusion was to pick a small city in Colorado. Surprise – Not.
Stats for Fort Collins:

  • Median family income (per year) $64,623
  • Median home price $212,000
  • Colleges, universities and professional schools 2
  • Personal crime risk (100 is nat'l average; lower is better) 77
  • Property crime risk (100 is nat'l average; lower is better) 91
  • Median age 28.8
  • Amount spent on vacations(domestic and foreign, household avg. per year) $7,209
  • Percentage of Population that is white (non-Hispanic) 83%
  • Percentage of Population under 50 80.9
  • Average Family Size 3
Yes, that looks like your average American to me. Some stats from Area Connect

Actual results from this survey :
It just supports and perpetuates the popular media b*llsh*t theory that everyone should live in McMansions in developments (that they probably can't afford) and live in places where it's too big to know everyone but not big enough to actually be all that diverse. And to associate only with other white, affluent people, and to hold only those opinions that the media says other people hold too. Heaven forbid anyone lives near retired people, or dislikes hot weather, or uses public transportation, or likes to live in rural/urban areas, or doesn’t have enough money to ski.

Aside from the stereotyping, there’s another thing wrong with this article - they promote this as the "Best Places to Live" not the "Best Places to Find Affluent People". Just because you move to a place with a high median income doesn't mean your income will go up. Basically this is just a pat on the back for Money magazine readers, ‘If you live in these places you're doing well comparatively speaking, provided you value the same things we do.’

Hat Tip to My Money Forest.
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Blogger Charles said...

It gets even better for Michigan. Of course anything in Michigan got eliminated because there aren't many job opportunities there right now... but look at what the finalists were:
Ann Arbor, Farmington Hills, Sterling Heights, Warren, and West Bloomfield.
All places that are insanely rich. Also, in my opinion, most of southern michigan is a lowsy place to live - it's ugly and crowded. Oh well... they set out to pick a certain kind of place. Congrats.

11:10 AM  
Blogger mOOm said...

They probably cut out the small towns to both reduce the number of places under consideration and so that the winners would be somewhere someone had actually heard of. I can't think of a rationale for the big cities. The place where people identify with a smaller place means a local government jurisdiction which covers several smaller settlements. They are basing the data on a town, city, county or whatever, but they want it to relate to mainly one actual settlement.

The bottom line is they want to get a list of places that their readers are likely to identify with as possible places to live.

7:15 AM  

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