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Professor challenges Wichita’s low ranking among large cities in study

Wichita ranked 57 out of 62 in a study by WalletHub.com based on measures of livability, education, health and economy
Wichita ranked 57 out of 62 in a study by WalletHub.com based on measures of livability, education, health and economy File photo

A new study by WalletHub ranks Wichita one of the worst big cities in the country to live in, but a local academic is challenging that assertion. Wichita ranked 57 out of 62 based on measures of livability, education, health and economy.

WalletHub released its rankings this past week because August is the biggest month for moving and it’s trying to provide easily digestible information for consumers, according to its spokesperson Jill Gonzalez.

Although Wichita is ranked 26th for livability and 30th for its economy, it’s ranked 60th for education and 51st for health, which are near the bottom.

Chase Billingham, a sociologist at Wichita State, has challenged the usefulness of these measures. Billingham claims the rankings are based on unequal comparison points and measures that aren’t widely accepted, then assigned arbitrary weightings and lumped together into a single misleading score.

For example, Wichita’s low education ranking is based in large part on its score by GreatSchools.org, a school ratings website. But the GreatSchool's rankings are based on how city schools do in comparison to other school districts in the same state.

That means Wichita could be punished if Kansas has better schools than the states with cities Wichita is being compared to. So even though Wichita’s schools might be better than Houston’s overall, Billingham said, Wichita could look worse than Houston if the state of Texas performed worse than Kansas.

WalletHub admits that some of its measures may not even be desirable in all cases. For instance, the measurement for “educational diversity” punishes cities that are too educated, according to Gonzalez, the WalletHub spokesperson. That’s because a city that is too educated doesn’t have enough uneducated people to be considered educationally diverse. Gonzalez said this shouldn’t matter in a city’s overall rankings because a city with low “educational diversity” will tend to do better on other measures such as income.

Billingham says that WalletHub’s measure of racial and ethnic diversity doesn’t utilize the mostly widely accepted measurement of diversity in sociology, “Gini coefficients.” Gini coefficients are a statistical tool used to measure income distribution. He also said that the testimonials provided by academics on the website frequently didn’t correspond to how the cities are ranked on the site.

WalletHub likes to have five or six academics approve their metrics according to Gonzalez. “We didn’t just pull these metrics out of a hat,” Gonzalez said. “We looked at other surveys on the same topic and gleaned from them the metrics that were the most relevant.”

Putting aside the debate about what data to use, Billingham said that WalletHub gives each category an arbitrary amount of importance. So for instance, the quality of Wichita’s school system is given triple the weight of how educated the city is overall and many times the weight of how affordable housing is or how easy it is to start a business.

When he looks at which cities came out on top, it appears that they are “reflecting the stereotypes people already had” rather than giving new information that each person can use.

“It’s trying to ask us what is the best place to live, but that is such a subjective question,” Billingham said. “What makes a place good for one person is not necessarily good for someone else. There are some things I like better and some things I like worse and this ranking isn’t going to give me that definitive understanding and it certainly doesn’t mean Philadelphia or Wichita is a bad place to live in.

If driving commute quality is important to someone, Wichita would be one of the best cities in the country, according to the rankings. But this is one of the virtues of the site’s rankings, according to Gonzalez: people can dig down into WalletHub’s rankings to find out how cities are doing on the measures that matter to them.

“Some people want to move to a big city because of its diversity and some people don’t,” Gonzalez said. “If that’s something that’s important to you you can look more closely at the metrics.”

The ranking is designed to provide a simple, easy number for people who don’t want to think about the data, according to Billingham, much like the US News and World Report has tried to do for colleges. Theses kinds of rankings are not respected by urban scholars, he said, but a city’s low ranking can have real world impact, just like college enrollment is impacted by US News rankings.

“Wichita is suffering unduly as a result,” Billingham said.

The ranking isn’t taking into account how people are actually making their decisions, according to Billingham. For instance, Boston is ranked higher than New York so, he said, he would expect to see people moving from New York to Boston but that isn’t the case. Many times people move for a job, and little else.

This study was limited to the city limits of large cities, but for many people the surrounding suburbs are a city’s most attractive option, according to Billingham, and this study doesn’t reflect that.

These kinds of rankings are popular, according to Billingham, because some people are anxious about where they live – “Is Wichita getting better or betting worse?”– and some people want reinforcement about the decisions they’ve already made. But these studies that rile up consumers can take attention away from more specific studies that Wichita’s leaders could use to improve the city, according to Billingham.

“This city is in a difficult place right now in terms of what it is going to take to grow our economy and grow our jobs and bring people to Wichita,” Billingham said. “This type of study is important but this one didn’t do it all that effectively.”

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