Metrics October 2013

No. 1 in Wine and Porn! The Idiocy of State Rankings

Comparing totally dissimilar populations can yield remarkably little insight
Mikey Burton

Residents of a certain famously picturesque New England state recently got some heartwarming news about themselves. “Vermonters Love Pets,” USA Today proclaimed earlier this year, above a write-up of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s ranking of pet-ownership rates by state. What a generous and loving people Vermonters must be, to open up their homes to more furry friends, per capita, than the people of any other state. Can these really be the same folks whom The Chronicle of Philanthropy ranked 48th in the nation in charitable giving?

The vast range of communities contained within the United States is one of our greatest assets, but it is also responsible for some of our silliest conclusions about ourselves. A scan of a given day’s headlines confirms that there’s nothing quite so irresistible as a juicy ranking, and for good reason. Who doesn’t want to know how their neighbors stack up against the rest of the country? Trouble is, comparing things like consumer habits among states that have tremendous differences in income, geographic footprint, natural resources, and—perhaps most fundamental—ratio of urban to rural populations is often a waste of time.

Washington, D.C., is the classic example. The Web site PornHub.com made headlines this year when it released online-pornography-viewing rates by state, placing D.C. at the very top of the list. At least the alleged perverts living in our nation’s capital display more refined taste in other departments: the District also ranks first in wine consumption. “DC ranks #1 in being the subject of stupid ranking articles,” the urban-planning activist David Alpert tweeted shortly after the PornHub list came out. Fighting for statehood may be a passion for Washingtonians, but with 100 percent of D.C.’s roughly 630,000 residents living in an urban area, being ranked alongside the 50 states quickly loses its appeal—you almost always come out looking like the country’s chief basket case.

Of course D.C. watches more online porn and drinks more wine than the states. It’s a city—and compared with states, which include rural populations, cities have greater access to high-speed Internet, as well as higher incomes. Which makes it that much easier to pour yourself a glass of Pinot and discreetly call up the latest Joanna Angel video on your iPad. (For the record, city dwellers do not appear to be more sex-obsessed than people in the sticks—not according to yet another state ranking. The mail-order sex-toy company Adam & Eve reports that its best customers live in states with largely rural populations.)

Similar logic can be applied to states with relatively low urban-to-rural ratios, like pet-loving Vermont. More than 60 percent of Vermont’s population lives in rural areas; only one state, Maine, is more rural. That the average household has more room, and probably more use, for animals suddenly seems unsurprising. (As for the state’s low level of philanthropy? One possible explanation: charitable donations tend to correlate with , and Vermont ranks last in church attendance. Vermonters are still generous, though—they rank 10th in hours spent volunteering, and first in nonprofits per capita.)

This isn’t to say that all state rankings are worthless—it’s perfectly reasonable to compare states on, say, per capita education spending (as this magazine did just last year), or days of sunshine per year. But when it comes to tracking consumer behavior, it’s most logical to compare big cities with big cities, small cities with small cities, and otherwise economically and geographically similar regions with one another. So the next time you’re feeling smug after reading about how your state is so much better at life than all the others, ask yourself this: Does my state have more or fewer urban areas than those on the other end of the list? Odds are good that well-paid, wine-swilling porn lovers may be skewing the results.

States Mail-Ordering the Most Per Capita From Sex-Toy Vendor Adam & Eve:

1. Wyoming

2. Alaska

3. North Dakota

4. Montana

5. Vermont

Percentage of Population Living in a Rural Area or Small City:

Wyoming: 75.5%

Alaska: 55.5%

North Dakota: 60%

Montana: 73.5%

Vermont: 82.6%

States With the Lowest Pet-Ownership Rates:

1. District of Columbia

2. Massachusetts

3. New York

4. New Jersey

5. Utah

Percentage of Population Living in an Urban Area:

District of Columbia: 100%

Massachusetts: 90.3%

New York: 82.7%

New Jersey: 92.2%

Utah: 81.2%

Presented by

Sommer Mathis is editor of CityLab. Previously she spent five years editing and reporting on the D.C. metro area at DCist.com and TBD.com.

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