Local politics: Well-being survey gives city room for improvement

Rob Moore

By most standard measures, Columbus is doing very well.

The city's median household income is $45,659 according to census data. That's $11,000 more than Akron, Columbus' closest competitor among Ohio's “Big Eight” cities. That means the average Columbus household has an extra $11,000 to spend compared to the average Akron household.

On top of this, Ohioans are voting with their feet. The Columbus metro population grew by more than seven percent from 2010 to 2016, a time period during which the average population growth in the Big Eight was almost flat.

Those are the main statistics we use to show how well Columbus is doing: median income and population growth. And according to those metrics, we're crushing it. But a group of statisticians and economists have been asking a challenging new question over the past few years: What if these traditional statistics aren't a great way to measure well-being? What if, instead, we simply asked people how their lives are going?

Last week, Gallup came out with its 2017 Community Well-Being Rankings, which do exactly that. To create this index, Gallup surveys hundreds of thousands of Americans, asking them questions about purpose, relationships, financial stress, community and health.

As I scrolled down this list, I expected to find Columbus near the upper end of the middle of the national distribution, but Columbus was ranked 125th of 168 metro areas, landing just after Cincinnati on the list. While Columbus still does fairly well among Ohio's Big Eight, it's middle of the pack statewide on purpose and social well-being, and it's struggling compared to its peers in financial and physical well-being. The only bright spot is that Columbus tops the state in community well-being, though our ranking is still just middling nationally.

What can we make of this? One big takeaway is that it's easy to pat ourselves on the back about the big numbers, but life is tougher when you actually go out and ask people about it. And also, Columbus' relative economic prosperity isn't translating to self-assessed well-being. If you want to like what you do every day, you may as well move to Dayton. If you want to feel economic security, Toledo may be better for you.

Columbus is a city with great wealth, solid governance and incredible human capital resources. Public policy approaches to well-being indicators are understudied, but that should not stand in the way of the city taking action. City Council is well-positioned to convene a committee to study indexes like the Gallup Community Well-Being Rankings and the Thoughtwell Columbus Benchmarking Report (another excellent study comparing Columbus to “benchmark” cities) and present policy recommendations on how to improve the well-being of its citizens.

It's a worthwhile endeavor to look past median income and population growth numbers and see how we can help the people beneath them.