How can Lake County, Illinois be #9 on the list of “America’s Most Miserable Cities”?

Forbes just put out their 2013 list of “America’s Most Miserable Cities.” Out of the top 20, there is one that is not like the others: Lake County, Illinois at #9. Here is the short description of why Lake County made the list:

The Chicago suburb is one of the richest counties in the U.S., as measured by per capita income. But home prices are down 29% over the past 5 years. Other drawbacks: long commutes and lousy weather.

There are numerous problems with this:

1. Calling an entire county a suburb is strange. Lake County is made up of dozens of suburbs which are quite varied. For example, look at quick overviews of Deerfield versus Grayslake versus Waukegan. Lumping them all together is silly and is one of the traps many people make when looking at the suburbs: they are not all the same kind of places.

2. How does a county end up on this list when the rest of the top 20 are cities? In terms of categories, a suburban county is not in the same category as a city. While there might be some identity in saying one is from “Lake County,” it is nowhere close to being a singular city.

3. Just glancing at this description and the top 20 cities on the list, I have to wonder how Lake County could even make the list. According to this list, Lake County is the 56th wealthiest county in the United States with a median household income of $74,266. Here is a bit more on the methodology:

We looked at the 200 largest metropolitan statistical areas and divisions in the U.S. to determine America’s Most Miserable Cities. The minimum population to be eligible was 259,000. We ranked each area on 9 factors, including average unemployment rate between 2010 and 2012; median commute times to work for 2011 based on U.S. Census data; violent crimes per capita from the FBI’s 2011 Uniform Crime Report.

We included three housing metrics: the change in median home prices between 2009 and 2012; foreclosure rates in 2012, as compiled by RealtyTrac; and property tax rates based on median real estate taxes paid and median home values in 2011 per the U.S. Census. We factored in income tax rates and the weather in each metro on factors relating to temperature, precipitation and humidity. The data metrics are weighted equally in the final scoring.

We tweaked the methodology in this year’s list in response to feedback from readers, dropping our rankings of both pro sports team success and political corruption, since both were based on regional, rather than city-specific data. We also added a new measure—net migration—which we see as a clear gauge of whether or not residents feel a community is worth living in.

If this methodology puts Lake County at #9, Forbes may want to revisit their criteria.

New census findings on growing American income gap

The United Census Bureau released 2009 income figures recently and the news is not good: the income gap between the richest and poorest is at its widest level since 1968.

The top-earning 20 percent of Americans — those making more than $100,000 each year — received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line, according to newly released census figures. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 13.6 in 2008 and nearly double a low of 7.69 in 1968.

A different measure, the international Gini index, found U.S. income inequality at its highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking household income in 1967. The U.S. also has the greatest disparity among Western industrialized nations.

At the top, the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans, who earn more than $180,000, added slightly to their annual incomes last year, census data show. Families at the $50,000 median level slipped lower.

Several key things to note:

1. A complete historical perspective is not possible since the Census didn’t collect household income information before 1967. But this most recent data can still be compared to 40+ years.

2. The US has the largest Gini coefficient, a statistic used in a lot of international comparisons of income, of any “Western industrialized nation.”

3. Even with the recent economic troubles, the incomes of the wealthiest (the top 5%) went up while those around the median income (about $50,000), with 50% of American below this income level, went down.

These are statistics that still matter and have important societal consequences without having to get into a discussion about whether it is moral or immoral for people to earn a lot of money.