ITHACA, N.Y. — Here at the Voice, we’ve made it a hobby to dissect those “Best of” lists. Here’s another one that might come up during your water cooler gossip or news feed perusal.

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Wallet Hub, a website designed to help individuals and small businesses make informed financial decisions, released its annual list of the “Best and Worst Small Cities in America.”

For this analysis, the company looked at 1268 small cities (defined as 25,000-100,000 inhabitants), rating each community on four categories: “Affordability”, “Economic Health”, “Education & Health”, and “Quality of Life.”

At the top of the list, tony suburbs and a few college towns – Princeton, Burlington, and Northampton, MA; and at the bottom of the list, mostly cities from California’s Inland Empire.

So where does Ithaca fall? An above average but not fantastic 394th of 1268, about a third of the way down from the top city, Princeton.

The four subcategories, though, couldn’t be much more lopsided.

Ithaca was 4th in “Quality of Life”, which was a category based commute times, the percentage of residents walking to work, hours worked per week, bars/restaurants/museums/gyms/coffee shops per capita, percentage of millennials moving in, and crime rate.

It’s no secret a lot of people walk to work locally, and we’ve all heard the line about Ithaca having more restaurants per capita than New York City. Also contrary to some local commentary, Ithaca’s crime rate is actually pretty low. So, this category is your one bragging right. Now for the other three.

“Education and Health” was a slightly above average 520th of 1268. Some of it is beyond Ithaca’s control – one of the four parameters in this section, school quality, used the whole state as a guideline, and the ranking for New York State isn’t very good. Then there was percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree (well above average, one would guess for a college town), percentage of population with health insurance coverage, and number of pediatricians per capita, which aren’t stated, but must be pretty average in their analysis. This category could be shrugged off.

Source: WalletHub

Now come the two that really hurt Ithaca’s ranking. “Economic Health” and “Affordability”.

In “Economic Health”, Ithaca ranked poorly, 1032nd of 1268. There were five factors in this category, all weighted equally – the unemployment rate (lowest in the state), population growth, income growth, percent of residents below poverty level, and median household income. The median household income in 2013 was just $27,150, compared to a state average of $57,369. WalletHub also gave Ithaca a tie for the fifth worst value (1263) for highest percentage of residents in poverty.

The problem with those statistics are that a large number of local “households” are students supported by their parents. It’s why many in-depth analyses prefer to use family income in their work.

Case in point, some of those other highly impoverished cities – State College, PA (Penn State), and Carbondale, IL (Southern Illinois Univ.). Princeton, #1 in this category, avoids this problem because 98% of Princeton’s undergrads (UGs) live on campus.

Now comes “Affordability.” Hold your breath, folks, Ithaca came in…1181st of 1268. In the bottom 10%.

There’s no beating around the bush in this category, which weighed housing costs, cost of living, and home-ownership rate. The cost of living in Ithaca is actually pretty average in most categories. Except that housing one, which ends up being a double whammy since it’s also its own category. The lack of owner-occupied housing doesn’t help Ithaca’s ranking either. One could argue this category is biased towards wealthy, Sunbelt suburbs where land is cheap, but without a doubt, Ithaca could be doing better.

Knowing the story behind their stats, WalletHub’s finding make sense, even if they’re not necessarily accurate. Looks like another case of “lies, damned lies and statistics.

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Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.