The not-so-hidden ideology of a “Best Places” list: if it’s in a city it can’t be good.

Business Week has published a list of the best places to raise children and surprise, surprise, the Top 10 are all small suburbs or rural towns except for Honolulu.  All these suburbs are without mass transit and most have very low minority populations.

The Business Week Top 10 for raising children includes:

  1. Tinley Park, Illinois
  2. Arcadia, California
  3. Warner Robins, Georgia
  4. Honolulu, Hawaii
  5. Quincy, Massachusetts
  6. Woodbury, Minnesota
  7. Tonawanda, New York
  8. Beaverton, Oregon
  9. Clarksville, Tennessee
  10. San Marcos, Texas

Here is what BusinessWeek says about the criteria that guided its selection of the best places to raise kids: “Tinley Park, with its top-rated schools, low crime, beautiful parks, relatively affordable houses, and easy access to jobs, is the winner of BusinessWeek‘s Best Places in America to Raise Kids,” and “Safety, along with school test scores, air quality, and affordability, were weighted especially highly in this year’s calculations.  But we also considered job growth, diversity, and amenities such as museums, parks, and theaters.”

An analysis of this list of criteria, plus the criteria that BusinessWeek didn’t use, will reveal that behind the construct of the survey was an ideological predilection towards middle-class suburbs.

Let’s start with disputing the claim that diversity was a criteria:  According to the latest U.S. census report, seven of the top 10 places for raising children have African-American populations of less than 3% (with one of the other three having an African-American population of 5.53%).  Six of the 10 locations have Hispanic populations of less than 5% (with one of the other four having a Hispanic population of 6.03%).  None of the top 10 have anywhere close to the U.S. average for both African-Americans (13.4%) and Hispanics (14.8%); it’s a case of either/or or none.  So much for diversity.

Now let’s look at some squishy criteria, that is, criteria for which there is room for interpretation: safety; schools; and nearness to museums, parks and theatres.  In the case of safety, we are caught in a battle between superlatives versus absolutes.  Yes, location X may be safer than location Y, but that does not mean that location Y is not safe.  We already know that test scores are not an adequate measure of school performance, and we also know from the many absurd school ratings that have come out in recent years that it’s possible to cook school ratings on ancillary factors.  As far as museums go, how can Tinley Park rate highly unless you say that being only 25 miles from the Chicago Institute with no reasonable mass transit option for getting there counts as being close to a museum?  How can you count Warner Robbins as great for museums unless you equate (and I would say conflate) the Macon Museum with the Milwaukee Art Museum or the Carnegie in Pittsburgh (let alone the L.A. County Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art)?

In short, there is plenty of room for manipulation in each of these broad categories.  It seems odd then that the list appears to be drawn up by mall developers, suburban real estate agents and car dealers.  It’s mind-boggling how similar the places in the top 10 are to each other, from dependence on malls and chains to emphasis on single-family housing and the automobile.

Here are some factors that BusinessWeek did not consider and which I, at least, think are very important for raising children:

  • Mass transit:  Mass transit makes children more independent at an earlier age.
  • Walkability to commerce and public places:  Again, children who can walk to places are more independent earlier.
  • Average commute to jobs: The less time mommy and daddy spend commuting, the more time they can spend with the kids.
  • True diversity, which I believe teaches children what the real world of work and commerce is going to be like.
  • Immediate access to cultural resources like theatres and museums:  The closer you are to these resources, the more you will use them, and so this factor should give weight to how far a community is from museums and to the quality and stature of those museums. 
  • Size of daily newspaper:  The daily newspaper is still the window on the world and a bigger one creates a bigger window.
  • Access to hospitals and health care: Needs no explanation.

I would find the BusinesWeek survey far more believable if it included a few low or medium cost cities which I know to be quite livable and wonderful places to raise children, such as Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Boston, Portland or Seattle.  As it stands, the BusinessWeek survey is a fine piece of propaganda that reinforces the myth that the suburbs are the best places to live (and that cities are bad places to raise children).

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29 comments on “The not-so-hidden ideology of a “Best Places” list: if it’s in a city it can’t be good.
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  27. paul sheldon says:

    You say “low or medium cost cities” and then mention my favorite city. Boston. Whaa? That hub of the universe may be worth it, but you have to pay for it. Americans seem to love these lists and getting their information already filtered (think Reader’s Disgust [oops…Digest]), It’s an interesting exercise to see how much the results differ for various accountings, but Boston definitely comes out on the high side. Here’s one source that listed it as #2 in cost, right behind NYC. http://www.soyouwanna.com/SITE/toptens/expensivecities/expensivecities.html
    p.s. Cost is one reason I have never lived in Boston proper, but in the less expensive suburbs instead. Of course, I could take the train into town.

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