It should be plain to anyone with half a brain that the explosion of state “ratings” and “top ten” lists are often not designed to further discussion, so much as short circuit it. I’m not talking about lists of clearly quantifiable metrics – obesity, unemployment, etc. Obviously, such lists can and do inform meanngful debate.
I’m talking about top ten lists of more subjective values that are arrived at too often by ideological measures, rather than anything scientific. Which states have the most “freedom” or are the most “moral,” even (especially) the “best for business.” There’s been an explosion of such lists in recent years, and the press has generally leaped at the opportunity for a canned headline and eagerly regurgitated what can be misleading, or even partisan gobledeegook into uncritical headlines.
All of this is why Kevin O’Connor at the Times Argus/Rutland Herald deserves a big gold star this week. He used last week’s buch-ballyhooed United Health Foundation ranking of Vermont as the “healthiest state” as a springboard to discuss one major metric that any meaningful “healthy” index should have included – hunger.
As O’Connor reports, “a just-released U.S. Department of Agriculture report says more than 14,000 Vermont households (one in 20, or triple the number since 2000) face hunger so severe that adults frequently go without food, while one in 10 residents now relies on donations to eat.” That’s hardly an occasion for self-congratulation. But O’Connor even goes further, talking to local activists and describing for readers what they can do to help make a difference.
I don’t want to sound like I’m knocking the United Health Foundation (well… not much). As mass ratings go, theirs is pretty comprehensive. And it does include economic factors. But for states that end up on the top of such rankings, these sorts of lists are more often an occasion for self-congratulation than self-analysis – especially among the traditional media. As such, O’Connor and his editors deserve credit for looking beyond the numbers. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a trend in the coverage of the next such lists.