In recent years, several Rio Grande Valley cities have been statistically ranked as the “lowest” or “worst” metropolitan areas in studies by US News and 24/7 Wall St. Whether ranking income, education or weight, area cities seem to always make their way onto the list.
The Valley made another list recently when it was ranked by Wallet Hub, an online financial resource page, whose list shows McAllen-Edinburg-Mission as the metropolitan area that least resembles the rest of the nation. While McAllen ranked 366 out of 366 cities, Brownsville also made the list coming in at 363. The study compared socio-demographics, housing, education and economic factors of individual cities and at the top of the list were Nashville, Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
The latest ranking is a bit tricky, however. UTPA Assistant Professor of economics Diego Escobari feels that the list may reflect hard numbers, but seems to give the wrong impression of the cities being ranked.
“(Wallet Hub) says that (not resembling the U.S.) might be potentially bad, but that’s not a bad thing. People might be very happy in not extremely diverse cities. Being up in the ranks does not mean the city is potentially better,” said Escobari, who received his doctorate from Texas A&M University in 2008. “The rank here uses some socio-economic factors, but it does not mean that these cities are better than others.”
The first method used to determine the ranking included socio-demographics. The factors included gender, race, age and household makeup – or the number of people living in a home and their relation to each other. In this part of the study, McAllen ranked 360.
Zachary Wise, a junior history major, said that the prevalent cultures in the RGV may be responsible for this low score, but that being different may not always be a negative thing.
“We have a very unique blend (in the RGV). We have primarily Hispanics and we have another culture similar to ours, which is Filipino. They are very much like the Hispanic culture. They have multifamily households and most of their money actually gets sent back to their families,” the 23-year-old said. “Down here in this area, we are so similar to different cultures rather than being not so similar.”
According to USA.com, a city data website, the Filipino population in McAllen represents more than half of the entire Asian community, which is 2.6 percent of the population.
Another factor in the ranking was housing rates, or how much houses cost in the areas being studied. The McAllen MSA ranked 299 while the Brownsville MSA ranked 270 out of 366. According to Wallet Hub, the average cost of a home in the U.S. is $174,600. A city data website said the average cost of a home in McAllen was $114,800 in 2012, nearly $60,000 less than the U.S. statistic.
Escobari said that while these numbers look negative, there are a number of factors that are not taken into consideration when stacking cities against one another.
“If I were making half the money here than I was making here in San Francisco, I would still be better off here. In San Francisco you can barely afford rent, where here you can buy a house with half the income,” Escobari said. “Whenever you look at average levels of income, you have to also control the average level of price.”
Levels of education and economic status also played a role in judging U.S. cities. While education statistics looked at the percentage of the population who had completed different levels of degrees, economic stats focused on the overall employment rates of each city.
A study done in 2013 by 24/7 Wall St. showed the Brownsville and McAllen MSAs as the first and second poorest areas in the nation, respectively. Another study by Wallet Hub ranked McAllen MSA as the ninth least educated area in the country. These studies suggest why the McAllen MSA placed 312 in economic rank and why Brownsville placed 299.
Wise explained why these cities rank so low and why the bills residents pay in this area may make the average median income of less than $34,000 seem not so low.
“(Educated Valley residents) leave because all they know is this area, all they know is this little world. So when you have a job opportunity that shows it’s for $60,000 (per year), you take it but you don’t look at the cost of living,” the Weslaco native said. “Even though you’re making $60,000, it’s less than what you would make (in the RGV) because of what you’re paying out.”
Sophomore finance major Marissa Ramos had mixed feelings about the ranking, saying that while the survey is based on facts and numbers, there are some things that cannot be accounted for.
“Sure the education level is low here, but who’s to say that all of the people who were educated here didn’t just move away?” the 20-year-old said. “On the surface (the RGV) looks bad, but once all of these factors are taken into consideration, this area is actually considered to be thriving.”
A 2012 Gallup poll ranked the McAllen MSA as the most obese city in the U.S. and noted the high prevalence of diabetes. While Escobari said these statistics look bad there is a silver lining to be found in all of this.
“First, it’s good because we are in the rankings. The fact that we are very high in diabetes, this of course not good news, but there is some level (of) good because we are creating awareness,” Escobari said. “You can see (in this study) that there are cities doing better, then there has to be something we have to do to improve this.”
Escobari also discussed income dispersion, or how levels of income are divided among the general population. He said that even though McAllen’s overall income is low, with a small percentage of people who make more than $200,000, 1.8 percent according to USA Today, this seemingly poverty-stricken area is far better off than other cities on the list. This characteristic of the Valley, he said, is far less problematic than places with a higher level of average income and a larger wealth gap.
“If the average level of income is low, but it happens that everybody makes the same level of income, then it’s not as bad as the average level of income being high and there being a huge dispersion,” Escobari said. “A huge dispersion means there are a lot of people making a lot of money and a lot of people under the poverty line.”
Ramos and Wise agreed that while the Valley has a long way to go before it ranks higher on statistical lists, they feel that the RGV’s unique flavor and culture are immeasurable and impossible to rank.
“I would feel that this area is more like America than most cities. Mainly because the history of this area, the history of the people, how this area was founded,” Wise said. “It is so colorful and vibrant, and it speaks truly to the hardships that surrounds the formation of this country.”