Thursday, 5 May 2011

Scranton, PA is America's Least Miserable City

Given all the local commotion about the Forbes miserable city list, I assigned a student intern to compile the data Forbes used and reverse engineer the list. Recall that Stockton topped the list that is reviled in the Valley with and Modesto, Sacramento and Merced also rating in the top 5 of Forbes misery.

Forbes didn’t publish the full ratings or data, just the cities at the top of the misery chart.  We wanted to see the other end of the list, the least miserable places.  Our intern, Jesse Neumann, was successful in replicating 8 of the 10 indicators - we couldn’t figure out how they measured losing sports teams and political corruption - but we were still able to match the ranking very well.  We found the full ranking to be entertaining and insightful, and my friend in university PR thought it was interesting enough to put together a news release (see below). 

Click through the link at the bottom if you want to see the full rankings in Jesse’s report and see where your hometown ranks.  (Note to Sacramentans:  Sacramento actually fared a little better, down to 8th most miserable in our version, primarily because we didn’t have the sports indicator so the Kings steady losing wasn’t dragging you down.)

America’s Least Miserable Cities: Scranton, Pennsylvania is America’s least miserable city according to a replication of the Forbes magazine misery index (May 5, 2011) -

Earlier this year, Stockton was named the most miserable city in the United States by Forbes Magazine and was followed closely behind by Sacramento and Modesto. But what is the least miserable city in the United States according to Forbes?

Well, it’s Scranton, Pa., according to a replication of the Forbes magazine miserable cities rating done by the University of the Pacific’s Business Forecasting Center.

Forbes has rated Stockton, California America’s most miserable city 2 of the past 3 years, but did not publish the full rankings of metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). For the 100 largest MSAs in the U.S., the Business Forecasting Center compiled the data for 8 of the 10 indicators used by Forbes, and was able to closely match the published Forbes misery rankings.

“We were interested in what cities were on the other end of the list,” said Jeff Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center (BFC).

“I’m graduating soon, and I wanted to know where I should go to escape my misery,” added BFC student researcher Jesse Neumann.

Scranton, the setting of the hit television series “The Office,” was a surprise to the BFC researchers. Scranton stood out in the misery rankings for having the smallest decrease in home values, and exceptionally low foreclosure rates. “With home prices in Scranton so low for so long, who needs a mortgage?” Michael said.

Despite being the most and least miserable cities, the BFC researchers observed that Scranton and Stockton had some things in common. Both metro areas began the decade with nearly identical populations. The 2000 Census recorded the Scranton MSA population at 560,625 and the Stockton MSA at 563,598. Over the next ten years, Scranton added 3,006 people, a 0.5% growth rate. In contrast, Stockton grew by 121,708 people, a 21.6% rate.

“It seems that people are attracted to misery as Forbes defines it,” Neumann observed.

After working with the data, it became apparent to the researchers that Forbes was missing a few obvious indicators. “Surprisingly, the Forbes ranking did not use a single indicator of income or wealth, or any measure of people moving out of the area,” Michael said.

As an experiment, the researchers replaced four of the most problematic Forbes indicators. Specifically, they removed: 1) political corruption, 2) sports team records, 3) sales tax rate, and 4) 3-year change in home values. They replaced these indicators with 1) net domestic migration, 2) median household income, 3) property taxes, 4) housing affordability index. “Sales taxes are often used by cities to shift the misery of taxes on visitors, whereas the misery of property taxes falls entirely on residents,” Michael said. The unemployment rate, foreclosure rate, crime rate, average commute time, weather, and income taxes were kept in the revised index.

In the experimental misery index, Miami was most miserable, followed by Detroit. Stockton was third, followed by Chicago, Los Angeles, and Memphis. Three of the four least miserable cities in the experimental index were in Utah.

According to the Business Forecasting Center researchers, the exercise confirmed the arbitrary and meaningless nature of these types of magazine rankings.

“Unfortunately, the Forbes ranking is causing real harm to these so-called miserable cities,” Michael said. “They should publish the full ranking and data so people can better make their own judgment about the reliability of the misery rating. Until that happens, we will continue to replicate their full rankings as closely as possible.”

Forbes ranked the 200 largest MSAs, whereas the BFC only compiled data for the 100 largest MSAs. Thus, smaller areas on the Forbes list such as Merced, Calif., do not appear in the replicated rankings. In addition, the BFC team was unable to replicate two indicators in the original Forbes ranking due to missing data or an unclear methodology: political corruption and winning sports teams.

The full report is available at: http://forecast.pacific.edu/articles/BFCForbesRevisit.pdf

About the Author

Ethan Jacob

Author & Editor

I am Ethan Jacob Executive Director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at the University of the Pacific, where I have a joint faculty appointment in the Eberhardt School of Business and the Public Policy Program in the McGeorge School of Law..

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