New Ranking a Family Plot?

Nearly a month after Pittsburgh was named "America’s Most Livable City" by Forbes magazine it has been named the 7th "Best Place to Raise a Family" by the same publication. Not top honors, but enough to warrant a quote or two from local leaders including the Mayor, though both rankings cover the seven county metro area.

This year’s methodology for ranking family-friendly places used the largest 100 metro areas and drew upon cost of living, home ownership, median household income, commute times, crime rate, and graduation rates. Given a similar sample and a lot of the same indicators it is easy to see why there was considerable overlap on the two recent Forbes’ tabulations. Only one place named in the top five most livable did not make it in the top ten best places to raise a family (Ann Arbor, MI).

But a quick look at the previous best family ranking in 2008 shows an entirely different picture: instead of metros, the magazine used counties over 65k in population. They also tried to construct a method of seeing how well public schools were funded by using only those counties where more than half of funding came from property taxes. They paid more attention to SAT scores as well as home prices and air quality in addition to the more conventional indicators of crime rate, commute, and per capita income.

The result: a completely different picture of the best places to raise a family in a two year time span. Only one state-Pennsylvania-had a place make it on to the top ten list in both years. Two years ago, two southeastern PA counties (Chester and Montgomery) made it, while this year the Pittsburgh and Harrisburg metros were on the list. There is no overlap beyond that. The best places from two years ago come from states that did not even have a metro area make it onto this year’s list.

The Case of the Disappearing Metros

Since May of 2007, Pittsburgh (the seven county metro area) has been ranked the "most livable City" by three separate publications: Places Rated Almanac, The Economist, and yesterday, Forbes.

The Forbes ranking comprised five areas on which Pittsburgh scored in the top 50 on three-crime, income growth, and arts and leisure. Averaged together, the Pittsburgh region comes out on top.

Consider that just a year ago Pittsburgh was ranked tenth by Forbes. That ranking certainly did not make local news. Now it has catapulted to first and boosters have seized on the rating. Last year’s top five metros have been replaced by an entirely new list which leads one to ask-what changed?

A quick review of the "Behind the Numbers" sections in the 2009 and 2010 articles on Forbes’ website seems to indicate one major change. In 2009 the sample size was 379 metro areas; this year, the top 200 metros were utilized.

Eliminating 179 metro areas certainly can have an impact on a ranking sample. Top performers from last year or those that may be improving may have been left out of the measurement entirely this year. Pittsburgh remained around the same level for culture and crime (37th last year to 26th this year and 45th last year to 15th this year, respectively) but it shot up on cost of living (147th to 52nd) and up dramatically on income growth (269th last year to 20th this year).

As we have stated before, the proof of whether the latest ranking of livability proves the old adage of "the third time is the charm".