From all the references to the “Best Places” publications from Fortune Magazine, Money Magazine, and U.S. News & World Report each year, it’s clear that many take stock in the rankings provided. But should we? How do we know the results are accurate and helpful?
Since I haven’t found anyone else doing it, I’m going to take a crack at fact-checking the studies using a nifty new website my business partner and I built after I went through the relocation process a year ago. Let’s see if their selections can withstand a little scrutiny.
If you are comforted by their lists and don’t want to risk me bursting your bubble (especially if your town was on the list!), read no further. But if you’re curious, I invite you to read on…
Cutting to the Chase
After spending several days reviewing the methods and results of these three publications, I have to say that their rankings are not convincing. It seems clear from the data that their results are not just trivial tomayto/tomahto differences of opinion. In some cases, their recommendations are probably wrong and possibly harmful — especially for families, the target consumer of the Fortune article.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to rail on any communities, but I will provide information about many of them that will surprise you. Want a teaser? Would you be surprised if some of these highly-ranked places are in counties with the highest crime in the country? Or locations with a high risk of natural disasters like tornadoes, flooding, and heat waves? Or annual snowfall of more than 10 feet?! Remember, these are supposed to be the “best” places. 😲
Critique #1 — The “Experts” Don’t Agree
Alright, I’ll grant you that this is a little nitpicky, but we might as well get it out of the way. If three groups are going through an exhaustive, super-analytical process to determine the best places in the country, how could they not have significant overlap?
This Venn diagram shows the representative overlap of the three studies. Only one city found its way onto all three lists. Congratulations, Ann Arbor, Michigan! That city topped the Fortune list, was a respectable #8 on the Money list, and was #11 on the U.S. News list. The Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce must be busting its buttons with pride. I’m happy for you! However, it makes me wonder why more people are leaving than moving there. What do those exiting Ann Arbor know that our magazine analysts don’t?
The more significant point is that there was no other overlap. So doesn’t it at least make you a little suspicious? Is it possible that the method used by one group of researchers (or all three?) is too much like the stock-picking methods so widely discredited in years past?
Maybe that’s a little unfair. But on the other hand, it would be interesting to have the Fortune, Money, and U.S. News researchers arguing for their respective lists in the same room. I’d pay 50 cents to watch, wouldn’t you?
Insight #1: “Best” is subjective. There is only one expert whose opinion matters. That expert is YOU. At sites like WhereMightILive.com, your opinion is the only one that matters.
Critique #2 — These “Bests” Have Too Many Worsts
This section applies more specifically to the Fortune article because they claim to be finding the “25 Best Places to Live for Families.” No doubt, Money and U.S. News are not indifferent to families, but they don’t claim to be going to bat on their behalf.
Being a family man myself, I will contend that there are at least four universal interests for families:
1. Safety and comfort
2. Cost of living and family economics
3. Educational excellence for the children
4. Family life and escape from the “rat race”
These are probably areas of interest for everyone, but families in particular. These categories, IMHO, represent the “majors.” So even if the ranked cities have groomed hedges, free lemonade, and many other ‘minor’ amenities, they’ve missed the boat if they fail to deliver on safety, cost, education, and family life. You’ll soon discover that Fortune, Money, and U.S. News have done precisely that. Missed the boat, that is.
I’ll use these four characteristics as the standards by which we can judge the selected communities.
Here’s where we find evidence that the lists, as well-intentioned as the authors may have been, fall short of delivering for American families and individuals.
Priority 1: Safety and Comfort
The safety and comfort bucket is the largest and includes three major crime categories, like homicide; homelessness; two environmental categories: water and air quality; I selected six natural disaster categories because of their deadly nature, natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes; and one weather category that people dislike if found in too great a quantity: snow.
There are many more attributes than those listed in the tables below (e.g., earthquakes, wildfires, etc.), but these should suffice for brevity. You’d think that the “Best” lists would exclude the less-than-desirable outliers for the following attributes when it comes to safety, but these lists surprisingly include places at the worst end of their respective spectrums.
Priority 2: Cost of Living and Family Economics
The second bucket covers economic issues. Three of the categories are taxes. Two cover the cost of housing as either a buyer or renter. One covers typical expenses. I used a family of four in my typical expenses assessment with one working adult. You can dial in your own family makeup at WhereMightILive.com if you want a more accurate portrayal of yourself.
I also considered the home investment potential, essentially the anticipated home appreciation forecast for the economic bucket. Because a home is, for most Americans, their largest single purchase and their most significant “investment,” if you purchase a home with a flat return vs. one that appreciates significantly, it has a substantial economic impact on their family. Related to home appreciation, I factored in population growth. Areas with a growing population are more likely to maintain their home values, whereas those that are shrinking are less so. As for homeownership, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, “homeownership remains an important path to wealth-building and residential stability for millions of households.”
For many right now, budgets are tight. And with inflation at historic highs, budgets are getting more strained by the month. In addition, mortgage rates are again rising, making housing less affordable, especially for first-time homebuyers. All that to say, you’d think that any “Best” list would contain only the most affordable and least taxed locations. But, again, you’ll be surprised.
Priority 3: Education Excellence for the Children
The third bucket is education. It contains two categories: the statewide ACT and SAT rank and the high school graduation rate. These are important because they are objective measures of actual school performance, not simply subjective opinions or ratings.
This priority applies explicitly to families, but there is an overflow effect for everyone in the community, whether they have children or not. For example, if there is a significant high school drop-out rate, that can’t be a good sign for the community.
Priority 4: Family Life and Escape From the “Rat Race”
The final bucket is lifestyle. It contains a single category, traffic. I added this with families in mind because it’s self-evident that nobody wants to spend their non-working hours stuck in traffic.
I think you’d agree that the cities suffering from commuter gridlock are probably not the best.
I think these are all reasonable factors that are universally desirable for a location to make it into the list of the best.
I present these four categories in the tables below. To show how each location rates nationally, you’ll see a colored dot representing that county’s national rank for each of these negative qualities. For example, a small green dot means that the community is in the worst quartile in the country. A large red dot indicates that the community is in the worst 1% in the country.
Count me naïve, but I expected to see a few green dots here and there, and maybe even an occasional yellow. Before analyzing the data, I wouldn’t have expected any orange dots (worst 5%), and certainly not any red dots (worst 1%) on the tables.
Frankly, I was a little shocked. How could places with the highest tornado risk in the country make the best list? Or the worst taxes, housing costs, and traffic. We’re talking about the BEST places, after all.
Go down the lists. Worst violent crime, worst homelessness, worst air quality, worst natural disasters, …
One city ranked worst 1% in 9 of the 25 categories. That same city also has massive negative growth — people are leaving in droves. Don’t they know they’re leaving the 10th-best city in America?
Insight #2: “Expert” recommendations include some real lemons. There is no replacement for personal research and personalization for something as important as deciding where to live.
Critique #3 — They Hide Lots of the Best Options From You
In all three articles, many places are excluded right off the top, but you have to dig in and read the detailed methodology to know that.
Fortune incorporated a diversity filter that removed one-third of all the counties in the U.S. That’s more than 1,000 counties and many thousands of cities and towns.
Money’s study downgraded 55% of all the counties for the same reason. More than half!
The white areas of the map represent regions that were excluded or downgraded because the white population was deemed too high. The hearts represent the top 25 “winning” locations from the three articles.
Of course, few would object if someone wants to move to a location based on ethnic diversity or the lack thereof. That’s their choice. But if someone wants to move to the best place for their family regardless of race, only to find that one-third or even 55% of the options are hidden, they’d have legitimate room to complain.
US News & World Report didn’t apply a criterion of ethnic diversity, but they did include only the largest 150 metro areas — again, cutting out the majority of the country.
With more and more people working remotely, smaller cities and more rural settings are becoming increasingly popular. Excluding everything except major metros by default is a disservice to a growing segment of Americans.
Insight #3: Living near or far from people who look, sound, and dress like you; or living in small cities or large metros are choices only you should be making. Don’t let experts hide viable options from you. When deciding where to live, have it your way.
Critique #4 — They Ignored Your Non-Negotiables
For many, central factors are at the heart of their decision to move. Leaving these critical factors off the table makes it impossible to help these people with their relocation decision. Several of these factors are polarizing with no middle ground.
Some insist on living in a “red state.” Others are equally adamant about living in a “blue.”
It’s the same with abortion or gun rights. These are contentious and polarizing topics with no middle ground. And there are more, like ethnic diversity, religion, and LGBTQ.
And it’s not just politically charged issues that separate people. Some want forests, some mountains, and some proximity to airports, big cities, or beaches.
But not everyone shares those sentiments. So to help find YOUR best place, you can’t use a generic list. Instead, you’ll need to create a list tuned to YOUR needs, preferences, and desires.
Insight #4: Everyone has different preferences. Only you know what matters most to you. Published lists will never be able to help you find YOUR happy place.
Critique #5 — It’s a Nice Place to Visit, But I Wouldn’t Want to LIVE There
Let’s not confuse fun places to VISIT with great places to LIVE.
Take, for instance, Disneyland — The Happiest Place on Earth. I have enjoyed numerous visits to that special corner of the world. So many happy memories. Would I visit there again? Absolutely.
Would I live next door? When I consider just the crime rate, it’s unlikely.
Insight #5: Nice places to visit are not necessarily nice places to live. Personalize your search to include the necessities of everyday life, not vacation priorities.
Critique #6 — Follow the Money
Publishers have conflicting incentives. They have to give at least the appearance of selecting the best places (but have you ever heard of anyone fact-checking them, besides me, of course?).
But they also have to cause a media stir, get attention, and attract eyeballs. They are publishers, after all. So if they select 25 sleepy towns that nobody has ever heard of, even if they are heaven on earth — that would never garner the attention that populated places will. On the other hand, selected cities have politicians, chambers of commerce, realtors, and citizens ready to make lots of noise about their rank, valid or not.
Publishers have to get a sponsor to pay for the publication. Sponsors pay for eyeballs. Small towns will not bring in eyeballs and, therefore, are unlikely to be chosen regardless of their “bestness.”
In the three tables above, you may recall that common negative attributes were high housing costs, high expenses, and high traffic. So why would the publishers choose those undesirable characteristics? I suspect it’s because big cities represent a lot of eyeballs.
To underscore my point, look at Money Magazine’s page. Notice their analysis is sponsored by Amerisave Mortgage. Note, too, that the word “Mortgage” is found more than 22 times on the article’s homepage.
That’s more than twice as many times as we find the word “place,” which was supposedly the article’s central theme.
Insight #6: Remember the old saying, “If you’re not paying for the product, then you ARE the product.”
Critique #7 — Beauty Pageant Mentality
I’m no mind-reader, but this whole scheme comes across like a group of judges handing out pageant sashes. Let me give you a couple of reasons why I say that. First, Fortune comes right out and calls the selected cities “winners” and “winning places.”
Money didn’t like the repeat winners and the consistency of past results, so they changed the judging criteria by restructuring data, introducing new data, weighting new factors highly, prioritizing some places, and lifting limits.
That sounds like mumbo-jumbo to justify changing the rules because they didn’t like the result they were getting. It’s almost as if they knew what they wanted in “winners” and changed the game’s rules to deliver the “winners” they wanted. But, again, I’m no mind reader.
In retrospect, maybe they’re not trying to pick the best places for you after all. Perhaps they don’t even have you in mind as they conduct their research. Maybe they view themselves as dispensers of beauty pageant sashes even if the locations are not objectively the best.
Insight #7: Don’t trust people who change the rules to give them what they want. You should be defining the rules of what YOU want.
Conclusion: THEIR Best Place is a Poor Substitute for YOUR Best Place
Despite their best efforts and, I hope, well-meaning intent, Fortune’s, Money’s, and US News & World Reports’ Best Places are almost certainly not YOUR best place.
City officials and citizens of the selected cities are welcome to boast about their placement on the lists. But as we’ve seen with this fact-checking exercise, their boasts are empty.
Realistically this whole Best Places exercise is something of a fool’s errand. How could there be a “best place for families” since all families are different and have different priorities? Worse, however, is that this promise of THE best place leads families AWAY from locations that could very well be THEIR best place.
I’m not trying to be a spoiler. But, if our goal is to help people find THEIR happy place, we need to stop posting placebos and red herrings in front of millions of Americans looking for honest answers and guidance meaningful to them in their situation. But unless we stop delivering our eyeballs to the publishers, I suspect we’ll see more of the same next year.
About the Author:
Rick Heggem is a Stanford-educated statistics/data nerd. He experienced first-hand the difficulty of answering the question “where might I live?” when he moved from his birthplace to an entirely new state in 2021. The pain of that process (Rick still has spreadsheet nightmares) became the genesis of WMIL. You’ll be glad to hear that Rick and his family are now living in their #1 ranked county and are loving it!