Why You Might Not Want to Live in America’s 2nd Healthiest County

Suzie Glassman

What rankings won’t tell you, and why it matters

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I moved to Douglas County, Colorado, roughly ten years ago when the country was in the Great Recession. We lived on the East coast, and my husband, unfortunately, fell victim to layoffs in his corporation.

We moved when he took a sales position in Denver (our county lies just south of the city). It didn’t take long to fall in love with Colorado’s year-long outdoor lifestyle and 300 days of sunshine.

When U.S. News and World Report ranked our county second among the 2020 list of healthiest communities, we weren’t surprised. I remember once when my mom came to visit, she looked around and asked, “does everyone here workout?”

The report gives a glowing review of our population health, equity, education, economy, housing, nutrition, environment, public safety, community vitality, and infrastructure. No doubt, the Chamber of Commerce will take the kind words and run with them.

With 285,465 residents covering 840 square miles, Douglas county might seem like an aspirational place to live.

Yet, there are downsides reports like this one fail to mention. Before you pack your bags and look over the list for a place to move, it pays to dig a little deeper.

First the Upsides

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the positives of living in a healthy community. They are mostly what you’d think — a low percentage of obesity (19.1 percent vs. 33 percent for the nation), virtually no one smokes (around 9%), and the average number of people with diabetes is less than half the national average (4.6% vs. 9.9%).

Peer Pressure

All this translates into an unspoken peer pressure to take care of yourself.

When four out of five moms in the carpool line are dressed in activewear, ready to hit the trails, or go to the gym, it’s hard not to want to join in.

My son was a year-old when we moved. I remember looking to make friends by joining outdoor playgroups and walking with other mom’s pushing strollers.

Even in the winter, it’s mostly sunny, and the snow melts quickly. I find few people are deterred from heading outside for long.

This kind of peer pressure is the best kind. It led me to a career in health and fitness, as I realized the power of leading by example.

Outdoor Activities

This point highlights the next best thing about living in a healthy community — the infrastructure. Sidewalks are wide. Fifty-seven percent of the population lives within a half-mile of a park. I live within a few miles of urban green space (land set aside for maintaining grass, plant life, water features, and the natural environment).

We are also only two hours from the mountains. Major ski resorts in the winter and hiking/mountain biking in the summer keep us reasonably busy.

Perhaps nothing highlighted the amount of outdoor living we enjoy more than the pandemic. Even when most activities closed, we could still take advantage of public parks and outdoor terrain.

The population of our county also tends to be better educated (66% have an advanced degree), more interested in voting (87.4%), and wealthier (average household income is $115,314).

With all that going for us, you may be looking to pack your bags. It’s only fair to mention what all this seemingly positive data also brings to bear.

The Downsides

Diversity

If you’re looking to raise your kids in a diverse community, Douglas County isn’t the place.

According to the latest demographic information, in 2018, there were 10.9 times more White (Non-Hispanic) residents in Douglas County than any other race or ethnicity. There were 25.7k White (Hispanic) and 15.9k Asian (Non-Hispanic) residents, the second and third most common ethnic groups.

Looking through my son’s yearbook, I can find one African American student in the entire fourth grade. My daughter’s 2nd-grade class had three.

Leigh Morrison writes in The Inclusion Report,

Spending time with people who are different from us helps us to challenge and question our assumptions, reject stereotypes, learn about different perspectives and experiences, and develop the ability to relate to people more.

I hate that my kids are missing out on these valuable lessons. Their friends are White. Their teachers are White. Their coaches are White.

I am White, so I can’t speak for anyone of another race, but I have to imagine moving to a place with a sea of faces unlike your own isn’t all that appealing.

Socially, I don’t believe that’s healthy. Clearly, diversity wasn’t taken into account for the U.S. News and World Report rankings.

Housing

My husband and I often remark that we couldn’t afford the house we’re living in if we moved here today. Luckily we bought at the bottom of the housing market in 2010.

Our home now would sell for at least $200,000 more than we paid for it. That may seem like a good thing, but if we sold, we’d be buying in the same market — making any net gain basically zero. We also pay more in property taxes every year.

The affordable housing shortfall in our county is -78.2 percent vs. -63.3 percent for the nation. This statistic shows the availability of affordable housing relative to a community’s low-income population. Negative numbers indicate a shortfall.

This means that lower-income and middle-class families cannot find affordable places to reside. Work hours per week needed to pay for housing are also greater than the national average (43 vs. 41).

There was a time when we thought we’d have to downsize. I ended up pregnant with my second child and decided I wanted to stay home with them. Stress over making ends meet kept us up at night (certainly not improving our health) until my husband got a promotion.

Cost of Living

I was surprised to learn Colorado ranks 18th on the most expensive states to live list. My guess is the state would’ve ranked higher. Perhaps the reason for our sticker shock is we moved from North Carolina, which ranks 29th on the list.

However, most of our neighbors moved here from California to the West or New York/New Jersey to the East. They might not find it so difficult, since they are used to shelling out more money for just about everything.

The average income is well over $100,000 for people living in Douglas county. The national median is less than $50,000.

Business owners lament they can’t find workers for minimum wage jobs (other than teenagers). That’s because minimum wage employment isn’t enough to provide families with a decent quality of life.

If you choose to move here because you think it’s a healthy community, I’m not sure you’re any better off if you end up having to work more hours, make additional sacrifices with what you can afford in your off time, and end up with fewer savings by keeping up with the Joneses.

Why it Matters

U.S. News and World Report proudly states these lists help guide people through some of the most challenging decisions of their lives (where to live, where to go to college, how to find the best hospitals, etc.).

However, it’s important to remember there’s always more than meets the eye. What makes a healthy community, in your opinion? It may be far more than low obesity rates, walking trails, and highly-educated neighbors. It may not.

The same thing can be said for the magazine’s famous college rankings. What does it take to get on the list, and how do you move up?

According to The Atlantic,

Because the rankings have a popular audience, they encourage colleges and universities to game the system — i.e., to do what they can to raise their place in the rankings by, for example, spending lots of money on things the U.S. News formula deems important or by aggressively increasing the size of their applicant pool so they can turn away a higher percentage of their applicants, thus showing themselves to be “more selective” and thereby raising their rank.
Moreover, some schools simply cheat. They actually lie when reporting numbers to U.S. News. Claremont-McKenna College is one of the most recent colleges to make it into the news for cheating the system, when it reported last year that a senior administrator had been sending U.S. News false SAT figures for years.

Are recipients of awards on all the various lists trying to game the system? I have no idea, but you could argue for the media exposure a high ranking gives a city, county, or state, it may be tempting.

Health as a marker of obesity, wellness, and opportunity is just one piece of the puzzle. What about mental health?

As a resident of the second healthiest county in the U.S., I can assure you it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

The rankings might provide bragging rights (I texted my brothers right away to let them know of their inferior living choices), but they don’t tell the whole story. Knowing what I know, I’d throw them out.

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I write about health and fitness with the goal to help you live a healthier, happier life.

Denver, CO
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