Monday, January 23, 2017

Breaking down Best Lists and Worst Lists Rankings

By Katie Thomas, Project Associate

This week a certain story caught my eye: Study: New Mexico named worst state to raise a family. I’m originally from New Mexico and have many friends and family still living in the area, so I usually keep up with local news out there. My first thought was, “eek.” That’s not the type of press coverage that states are usually excited about receiving.

We see these lists all the time though: Best City for Young Professionals, Most Pet-Friendly Cities, Worst States to Make a Living, Best & Worst States for Landing a Career, Best and Worst States for Women, Best Cities for a Slice of Pizza (okay, maybe not that one, but it is possible), and on and on. You get the point. Cities and states love to see their names at the top of the lists and proudly point to them when given the chance. It’s great to receive free positive press, and certainly, such press is valuable earned media that gets the attention of readers. However, on the flipside, what about those cities and states that find themselves at the bottom of the lists? They are likely less than thrilled to see their communities in such negative spotlights.

Obviously, I had to do some further investigation to see how New Mexico ended up in the spotlight and at the bottom of the list. It turns out that New Mexico earned its spot as the worst state to raise a family based on an evaluation by WalletHub. The ranking was based on 40 key indicators that their data team deemed as indicators for family-friendliness. The indicators were broken out into five categories: family fun, health and safety, education and child care, affordability, and socioeconomics. Within each category were a variety of metrics, each with a weight toward the final score. The overall score was then used as the basis for the ranking.

So, what metrics were included in the five categories? Well, some were to be expected – crime rates, quality of public schools, child-care costs, child day-care services per capita, housing affordability, etc. Others, were more interesting – weather, arcades per capita, number of attractions, average commute time, job opportunities, employer-based retirement plans, median credit score, etc. Interestingly, weather (which was based on another ranking) was given equal weight to child-care costs. Arcades per capita had more weight than pediatricians per capita. (Side note: Do kids still go to arcades?) And the violent-crime rate had a smaller weight than fitness and sports recreational sports centers per capita. 

The point of this post is not to disagree with the ranking, but rather it is to highlight the subjectivity of these rankings and the methodology that they are sometimes based off of. Communities should certainly make the most use out of positive media stories, but those at the negative end should be aware of the methodology behind such rankings. I certainly don’t think that New Mexico should launch an initiative to attract more arcades to the area in order to improve its “family-friendliness,” but policy makers and community leaders could take a look at some of the indicators to see what could be done to make improvements in areas that truly matter. There are certainly some areas that are concerning – poverty, crime, and child-care costs, to name a few – but being at the bottom of such a ranking is not the top concern. Nevertheless, in the short run, promoting positive stories through other forms of media could help combat and improve any possible negative perceptions that existing and potential residents, businesses, and visitors have of the state. 

(In case you were curious, North Dakota ranked at the best state to raise a family.)