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Sorry, Maryland, things may not be that bad

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My favorite story in The Baltimore Sun last week was by my colleague Eileen Ambrose, reporting on how Marylanders are a bunch of whiners, at least according to a state-by-state breakdown of the complaints received by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Predictably enough, the story drew a few online comments, most of which were complaints themselves. Yes, complaints about a story about complaints, leading inevitably to complaints about other commenters' complaints. It was a veritable festival of aggrievement!

Allow me to spoil all the fun with some mostly positive news, just to go along with the weekend's insanely beautiful weather and that big ol' strawberry moon. We can all return to regular programming on Monday.

A study released last week suggests that things are not that bad around here. In fact, we are relatively healthy, wealthy and wise, according to the Social Science Research Council, which regularly measures the country's well-being, and only three states and the District of Columbia are healthier, wealthier and wiser than Maryland.

And no, it's not just sainted Howard and Montgomery counties pulling up our score, either — Baltimore has made the greatest improvements in its well-being score since the last time the council took stock of the country, and it now ranks seventh-best of the 25 largest metro areas.

I know, who are these spoilsports and how can they go around telling us we're doing pretty good?

The council is a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that promotes social science research, and every couple of years it issues a "Measure of America" report. The group's measuring stick is the Human Development Index, based on the work of a late economist, Mahbub ul Haq, who believed that statistics like the GDP, or gross domestic product, failed to tell you how a country's people were doing.

"He saw that when you looked at GDP per capita, Pakistan and Vietnam were about equal. But in Vietnam, people were living eight years longer," said Kristen Lewis, co-director and co-author of "Measure of America."

"The same money was not buying the same well-being."

The index measures three "core" contributors to well-being: "a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living," according to the report. By taking into account life expectancy data, school enrollment, educational achievement and median earnings, the researchers came up with a well-being index from 0 to 10 for various groups and locales.

This isn't quite the Gross National Happiness index that the Kingdom of Bhutan, kookily enough, uses to determine if its population is unhappy, narrowly happy, extensively happy or deeply happy.

Lewis said that there are too many variables in how people define happiness — your heaven might be my hell — so it can't really be quantified.

Instead, researchers went with generally agreed-upon measures of a good life — a long, healthy one, access to knowledge and decent wages.

What they found is a range of well-being across the country that is pretty startling. (The full report — with cool maps, charts and a "Well-o-meter" to calculate your personal index number — is available at measureofamerica.org. I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours, but then, who knows where that might lead — SAT scores, BMIs and other statistical horrors.)

There's both good and bad news aplenty in the report, beyond Baltimore and Maryland's overall good index numbers. There is interesting, but also tragic, data when you bore down into various racial, ethnic and geographical groups, for example.

Such as: Which group in which city can expect to live the longest? That would be, ahem, Asian-Americans in Baltimore, who have what the researchers call "a life expectancy of a stunning 90.5 years," compared to 78.9 years for the country as a whole. Stunning, maybe — suddenly I feel very tired.

As well as slightly cougar-ish. As I grow old the trousers that I'll wear rolled might have to be leopard print since any search for companionship will lead mostly to younger-uns: Baltimore as a whole is second from the bottom of large metro areas with a life expectancy of 77.7 years.

The shameful part of the report comes when you see that African-Americans and Native Americans, particularly those in the least-well-off states, lag behind in standard-of-living measurements. The good if parochial news is that blacks are doing the best overall in Maryland. And their educational achievements are on the rise.

Much but not all of this is related to money: The top five locales are all home to higher-than-average earners, in order: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Maryland. The bottom five are the more impoverished: Alabama, Kentucky, West Virginia, Arkansas and Mississippi.

I would also note a blue state-red state split here — cue the charges of liberal bias in the study! — but Lewis doesn't. She will only note that the states that come out on top do make investments, monetary or otherwise.

"States with the greatest investment in their education systems for example, or health care — states that invest in people do the best on the index in general," she said.

But Lewis is also quick to note that we're not just talking public dollars here.

"It's not just the government investing, it's the people themselves," she said. "They're making choices to stay in school, they're sticking around to get a bachelor's degree."

Another fascinating aspect is that while richer states undeniably come off better on the index, it's not entirely a case of buying yourself better well-being. For one thing, there were states where median income rose but other measures of well-being fell. And, on the individual level, while earnings went down due to the recession, overall, health and education improved.

"It tells us that something like income is more volatile," Lewis said, "but health and education are the results of longer-term investments."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jean_marbella

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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