Reprinted from the Quad-City Times May 22.
In case you missed it, Iowa is no longer the best state in the country.
At least, that was the judgment offered last week by U.S. News & World Report. Iowa dropped from 1st to 14th in the publication’s annual “Best States” rankings.
Ordinarily, such an event wouldn’t really require much comment. These days, there is an endless parade of rankings — by state, by city, etc. — of the various metrics that purport to measure our well-being and happiness. They tend to occupy a few paragraphs on the websites of newspapers and television stations, then they’re gone.
Still, last month’s ranking from U.S. News deserves some comment — if only because of the rather prominent role it played in last year’s campaign for governor in Iowa.
The news that Iowa topped the 50 states, which was announced in February of last year, was enthusiastically touted by Gov. Kim Reynolds and her allies.
It was proof, they said, that Iowa, led by the governor’s steady hand and bold vision, was at the top of the heap — verified by a data-driven, neutral process.
For their part, Democrats did their best to ignore the rankings. After all, it’s pretty hard to argue with being No. 1.
So when U.S. News said in May that Iowa had fallen to 14th, the reaction was fairly predictable. The governor put the best spin on the matter, saying in a statement, “Iowa is and will always be the best place in America to live, work, and raise a family.” She added, too, that her administration was “just getting started,” as she had new plans for improving health care and greater funding for broadband internet.
Democratic party chair Troy Price, on the other hand, said Iowa’s fall wasn’t surprising. “Gov. Reynolds clung to this as tight as she possibly could last year and now this same survey is finding that under her leadership we’re going in the wrong direction. My question is how much is she going to be talking about us having dropped 13 positions in the first year of her time in office?”
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A rhetorical question, no doubt.
In this year’s survey, Iowa slipped noticeably in the areas of health care, the economy and infrastructure.
Iowans might be surprised at some of this. The economy, by the usual metrics, has improved as it has across the country, and it hardly seems as if there have been major changes to health care and our state’s infrastructure that are different from the year before.
But, it is important to note, these rankings measure us relative to other states, and they take into account hundreds of data points. In other words, as some states move up in these categories, others necessarily move down.
It seems unlikely Iowans themselves have experienced the kind of year-to-year decline this ranking seems to indicate. In fact, Gallup’s “Well-Being Index” (yet another measurement) for 2018 put Iowa 26th in the country, not that much different than the 21st position that the state held the year before.
Gallup’s index is derived from surveys it conducts of adults in all 50 states on subjects like career satisfaction, social relationships, financial standing, physical health and community.
The Gallup survey consistently finds Hawaii ranks among the highest states, while Louisiana and West Virginia have tended to rank the lowest.
We figure Iowans are more likely to find recognition in Gallup’s findings and its trendline. We believe Iowa has always been a decent place to live, with a low cost of living (albeit with low wages), good schools and relatively low crime. But we don’t have great weather, beaches or mountains, nor do we have the dynamism of other states. But, we’re a pretty stable place year in and year out.
The upshot of all this is that while we respect the work that has gone into the various indexes that measure the status of Iowa and Iowans, we know that in the end, the level of a person’s happiness and well-being are unique. And it probably doesn’t change all that much with the release of a ranking. So, the next time you see somebody touting a study that puts Iowa at the top of the heap — or that draws attention to it because of a sudden drop — perhaps it’s best to remember that there is always another survey that might present a different view.
It also would be a good idea to remember the cry of long-suffering baseball fans whose teams have perennially fallen short: “Wait ’til next year!”