Ken Plum: Being among the happiest

Technologists have applied their big data and computer-crunching to determine where in the world and where in the United States are the happiest places to live. The Happiest Places in America-2016 Edition was released last month by Smart Asset, a firm that uses technology to help consumers understand finances. Since my constituents reside in what this study rated the second happiest place to live in America and next door to the happiest place, I thought it would be interesting to examine how Loudoun County as number 1 and Fairfax County as number 2 got those distinctions.

While I am certainly a happy person surrounded by many happy people, I believe the methodologies employed while useful in understanding the communities in which we live can also create a false sense of community satisfaction.

Loudoun and Fairfax Counties are the two happiest counties in the US when you limit your study to counties over 50,000 in population. The only other counties in the top ten in happiness located near us are Howard County in Maryland at number 7, Chester County in Pennsylvania at number 4, and three counties in New Jersey; the rest are in the Midwest. No county west of Douglas, Colorado (number 8) made the list.

Eight factors determined happiness in the study. On the positive side, marriage rate, the ratio of median income to cost of living, life expectancy, and physical activity rate (the percentage of the population getting adequate physical activity each week) were considered. Negative factors were poverty rate, unemployment rate, divorce rate and personal bankruptcy rate. The factors considered together created a score for each county. Loudoun County for example has a median income that is more than twice the cost of living. Its unemployment rate and poverty rate are both under 4 percent. Fairfax County bolsters its score with a life expectancy rate over 83 years and a median income that is almost twice the national median income. At the time of the study, both Loudoun and Fairfax Counties had an unemployment rate of 3.2 percent.

Looking at an extended list of the top 25 happiest counties in America adds York, Virginia at number 15, Montgomery County, Maryland at number 19, as well as counties in Texas and California. Nearly a thousand counties were considered in the study.

For persons working in social services in Loudoun and Fairfax Counties, the list may cause some consternation. A 4 percent poverty rate is low but when applied to a population of 1.2 million in Fairfax County represents a very large number of people. The same is true of low unemployment rates when applied to a high number of persons living in an area with a very high cost of living. Even in the happiest of places, some among us struggle. We clearly have strengths in Northern Virginia that we can build on to extend health, wealth and prosperity to those who may not share those characteristics now.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.