Published in: Research | Feb. 24, 2020
Study: The Most Socially Conscious Cities in the U.S.
By: Amy Fontinelle
How socially conscious is your city?
What does "socially conscious" even mean?
It’s more than just a euphemism for having left-leaning political views (sorry, Urban Dictionary).
"Social consciousness asks us to recognize the inherent connection between us all," Kirsten Helgeson, founder and CEO of Just A Girl, a company that drives mental health and women’s empowerment efforts, told The Ascent.
This awareness -- at individual and institutional levels -- helps account for the needs of a city's residents. That's what it means to live in a community. Without it, people are isolated and more likely to be depressed, anxious, or violent.
"Social consciousness . . . makes one attuned, responsive, and sensitive to the needs and problems of society or the societies in which they live, work, and operate," said Terrell Strayhorn, Professor of Urban Education at LeMoyne-Owen College and CEO of Do Good Work LLC, in an email to The Ascent.
"Yes, it’s about awareness, but awareness is not enough. It’s a consciousness that calls one to action, duty, and responsibility. Social consciousness is important because we cannot change things we do not see, pay attention to, or [that we] subconsciously ignore," Strayhorn adds.
We couldn’t agree more, so we wanted to highlight how America’s largest cities are doing when it comes to social consciousness.
How we ranked American cities' social consciousness
We looked at seven factors to create a composite score for each city on our list:
Equality consists of measures of racial, gender, and LGBTQ equality.
Neighborliness consists of volunteering and crime rates, proportion of homeless population that's sheltered, and immigrant-friendliness.
The cost of childcare measures the monthly cost of full-time care for two children.
Sustainability represents a city's progress toward the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.
Food access measures the number of people who live more than one mile from a grocery store in an urban area or more than 10 miles in a non-urban area.
Public transit includes measures of connectivity, access to jobs, and frequency of service.
The cost of healthcare is a huge issue in the United States, and is one of the pressing social problems of our time.
These dimensions represent some of the most important social issues in American life. Of course, we couldn't include every social issue that we could think of -- there's just not data to support that. We chose these seven factors (consisting of 12 points of data) to create the best approximation possible. When we update these rankings next year, we'll do our best to include even more socially relevant factors.
To determine each city's category score, we used the following formula to convert the original data to a score on a 100-point scale:
[city's score] - [lowest score] / [highest score - lowest score] * 100
Then we summed the category scores to get a total score out of 700.
For information on our data sources, see the Methodology section below.
The 10 most socially conscious U.S. cities
Using the seven metrics above, we’ve identified the 10 most socially conscious cities in the United States. These cities provide examples for others to follow -- but even the best cities have room to improve.
Here are the category and overall scores for the top 10 cities. We'll start with #10 and work our way down to the most socially conscious city in the country at #1.
#10. Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles stands out for LGBTQ equality and a smaller gender pay gap, but scores poorly on racial equality. The city’s black population isn't as integrated with the city’s white population as Hispanics and Asians are, a trend that plays out nationwide.
But the city’s rating for immigrant friendliness is excellent, as is its food access. That makes sense given the population density and the region’s importance in food production.
L.A.’s score for sheltered homeless population is abysmal, and it’s unsettling that California experienced a 16% increase in homelessness from 2018 to 2019. California is home to 53% of the country’s unsheltered homeless population.
#9. San Diego, California
San Diego stands out for its low crime and high immigrant-friendliness. Two examples: A private shelter provides short-term beds for migrants along with medical screenings and fresh clothes, and the University of San Diego’s School of Law holds a clinic to help immigrants with paperwork and legal matters.
The city also scores high marks for its progress toward the UN’s sustainable development goals, especially goals six (clean water and sanitation) and nine (industry, innovation, and infrastructure).
#8. Seattle, Washington
It’s no shock that Seattle is a leader in meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals -- it earns top scores on five of the 16 goals. This, along with the city’s excellent public transit system, helped it land in our top 10 most socially conscious cities.
Still, to become a more neighborly city, Seattle needs to improve gender pay equality (it ranks 74th of the 100 cities we analyzed), crime, and sheltering its homeless population.
#7. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
In Pittsburgh, most of the homeless are sheltered and residents rack up lots of volunteer hours. Pittsburgh Cares publishes a calendar of daily volunteer opportunities and facilitates sign-ups. Public transit includes hundreds of busses, Amtrak connectivity, and a free downtown zone in the city’s 26-mile light rail network. But childcare is expensive, the black-white racial divide is noticeable, and food isn't always accessible.
Health care is more affordable in Pittsburgh than in any other big city except Baltimore. But the true cost of health care is a controversial topic. One study concludes that the area’s hospitals provide efficient care, keeping costs down by using resources wisely. What consumers actually pay, though, depends on their insurance and where they get treatment, as costs vary widely by plan and provider.
#6. Chicago, Illinois
While Chicago’s equality score is nothing to brag about, one component of that score is immigrant-friendliness. Chicago ranks first in this subcategory because of its perfect scores in government leadership, economic empowerment, inclusivity, community, and legal support. Latinx immigrants make up 30% of the population, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently affirmed the city’s openness to refugees.
The Windy City is also a standout in LGBTQ equality and public transit, and it ranks well for food access and sustainability, too.
Where could Chicago improve? Racial equality and gender pay equality are poor, and the homeless aren't sufficiently sheltered.
#5. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The City of Brotherly Love lives up to its reputation, ranking high for neighborliness thanks largely to its friendliness to immigrants. Starting around the year 2000, immigration reversed a half-century of population decline in Philadelphia, and immigrants now make up 15% of the city’s population.
The city’s greatest strengths lie in its public transit system, food access, and LGBTQ equality, though Philly needs to improve on racial equality and childcare costs.
#4. Boston, Massachusetts
Boston’s low crime, excellent public transit, LGBTQ equality, and high scores for food access and sheltered homelessness helped it earn our No. 4 ranking despite poor racial equality, high childcare costs, and low volunteering scores.
Massachusetts as a whole does a solid job of sheltering its homeless population, with only 4.5% unsheltered on a January night. That’s super important, given the area’s climate. But it may understate the overall problem, since numbers could increase in warmer weather.
Boston’s high population density and excellent public transit help make food accessible. The city even publishes food resource lists and maps in seven languages.
#3. Portland, Oregon
Is anyone surprised that Portland came in near the top of a socially conscious cities list? Its strongest points in our survey were LGBTQ equality, public transit, sustainable development, and immigrant friendliness.
The city government practices sustainable procurement, leveraging Portland’s buying power to "demand cleaner, greener, fairer, smarter, and safer products and services." And Portland’s sustainability Meetup group has more than 1,800 members.
But for a city with such a progressive reputation, it scored surprisingly poorly for crime, unsheltered homelessness, and childcare costs.
#2. Baltimore, Maryland
Baltimore earned our number two ranking largely because of its health care cost score. Health care prices in Baltimore are more than 25% below the national median. At the same time, health care use is more than 25% above the national median.
Baltimore also earned the highest possible score for LGBTQ equality, along with 41 other cities in our index (perhaps big cities are more likely to be LGBTQ friendly). There's a reason that the Pride Center of Maryland is headquartered there.
But crime remains a major drawback, and the city ranks poorly for racial equality. These factors help explain why a 2017 report from the Baltimore City Health Department finds that life expectancy differs by as much as 20% between neighborhoods.
#1. Washington, District of Columbia
D.C.'s food access and public transit scores helped it earn the top spot in our list of the most socially conscious cities. Our nation’s capital also does a good job of sheltering its homeless population, meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals (especially on poverty), and providing LGBTQ equality. It struggles with racial equality, friendliness to immigrants, and crime.
Even with those drawbacks, though, D.C. shows its commitment to creating a better society by dealing with some of the biggest problems that are facing our society today. You see it in the private sector with hotels, restaurants, and citizen groups that promote social consciousness. You also see it in local government with an emphasis on school quality, gender equality, and a variety of social programs that help people with housing, recycling, and more.
A quick look at the newsroom on DC.gov shows a wide variety of social programs and initiatives run by the city's mayor. And the statistics are clear: Washington, D.C. is the most socially conscious city in the United States. Now it's up to other cities to try to take the throne!
The 10 least socially conscious U.S. cities
Our 10 least socially conscious U.S. cities scored about half as many points as our most socially conscious cities. All cities face ongoing challenges in identifying and meeting the needs of their more vulnerable residents, but these cities have extra room to improve.
#10. Fort Worth, Texas
While Dallas has a decent social consciousness score, its neighbors Fort Worth and Arlington both suffered from so-so scores on measures such as gender pay equality, racial equality, sheltered homeless population, and sustainable development. Fort Worth also received similarly poor scores on food access, public transit, and immigrant friendliness. Where it does better than its neighbor is in LGBTQ equality, and that kept it ten places away from the bottom of our list.
#9. Wichita, Kansas
The largest city in Kansas suffers from low scores in quite a few areas. It has the most room for improvement in gender pay equality, LGBTQ equality, crime, immigrant-friendliness, food access, and public transit. But its residents do a great job of volunteering. Their civic engagement helped Wichita earn a 2019 All America City award for addressing local issues including food deserts, inner-city youth baseball, and relationships between police and black residents.
#8. Fresno, California
This city in California’s Central Valley earned one of the highest scores for gender pay equality (though every city still has a long way to go in this area). It also has reasonable childcare costs and decent food access. Where it could improve the most is on LGBTQ equality. Overall, several middling scores pulled down Fresno's rating -- not any especially bad ones.
#7. Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Low scores on gender pay equality, LGBTQ equality, crime, immigrant friendliness, and food access really hurt Baton Rouge. But guess what? It has the lowest child care costs of any city in our survey and a decent cost of healthcare.
#6. Stockton, California
This California city scores near the top for black-white racial equality, but that’s a hollow victory in a city with few black residents. Its overall equality score is just okay; it needs to improve on gender pay equality and LGBTQ equality. Stockton ranks near the bottom in neighborliness because it does a poor job of sheltering its homeless population. Childcare costs and food access are decent, but health care costs and public transit need improvement.
#5. Buffalo, New York
New York State’s second-largest city earned poor scores for racial equality, childcare costs, and health care costs. Buffalo’s strongest point is sheltering its homeless population, and it also earns respectable marks for public transit and sustainability.
#4. St. Paul, Minnesota
St. Paul has many weaknesses, but a few significant strengths. It earned the maximum score for LGBTQ equality, but needs to improve on racial and gender pay equality. Residents excel at volunteering, but the city could be much more immigrant-friendly. And while the public transit score is well above average, child care is far too expensive.
#3. Bakersfield, California
Bakersfield's neighborliness score was decimated by the city’s abysmal ratings for volunteering and sheltering the homeless. The city ranks poorly on equality because of gender pay disparities and LGBTQ inequality. However, its childcare costs are some of the lowest among the 100 big cities we ranked. The California Department of Education provides childcare assistance to parents who are working, in school, job seeking, job training, homeless, or incapacitated.
#2. Arlington, Texas
This North Texas city that neighbors Dallas and Fort Worth has middling scores for racial equality, gender pay equality, and LGBTQ equality. One of the worst scores for immigrant-friendliness dragged down its otherwise decent scores in the neighborliness subcategories. The city ranked next-to-last for the quality of its public transit system, but as a bright spot, it operates a $3 ridesharing service in some areas from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
#1. Anchorage, Alaska
Alaska’s most populous city earned a score of just 266 out of 700. While its equality score is on par with Portland’s and it ranks well for sheltering the homeless (a must, given the climate), it ranks poorly in crime, childcare costs, food access, public transit, and health care costs.
San Francisco, California
You might be surprised that San Francisco didn’t make it into the top 10 most socially conscious cities. It came close at No. 12, but its scores present the city as one of extremes.
It’s in the top five for LGBTQ equality, immigrant friendliness, sustainable development, food access, and public transit. Yet it’s in the bottom 20 for crime, gender pay equality, proportion of the homeless who are sheltered, and childcare costs.
Durham, North Carolina
This North Carolina City earned the highest score for gender pay equality. How? Women there out-earn men in farming, fishing, forestry, community and social service, health technology, health care support, and personal care and service. The city that Duke University calls home is also well above average in black-white integration, especially considering that about 40% of residents are black and about 50% are white. Durham’s Research Triangle neighbor, Raleigh, ranked as one of our 10 best cities for high salaries and low cost of living.
Although Madison wasn't ranked in HMI's health care cost study, it scored well in the other categories, including an 86 in sheltered homeless population and a 77 in crime. However, its low scores in racial equality and immigrant-friendliness kept it out of the highest echelon. Its top-10 sustainability score is a big bonus, though.
Las Vegas, Nevada
While not often lauded as a socially progressive city, Las Vegas had the highest equality score in our ranking. While its racial and gender equality scores hovered in the high 70s, a perfect LGBTQ equality score from the HRC boosted this category. Unfortunately, very low scores in volunteering, sheltered homeless, and sustainability kept it out of the higher ranks.
Full social consciousness rankings
Want to see where your city ranks in The Ascent's list of the most socially conscious cities? Here's the full data.
Keep in mind that we've only included cities that are missing, at most, two pieces of data. We've excluded the rest to prevent unfair comparison with cities that have more data points.
In search of the perfectly socially conscious city
Is it realistic to expect a perfect score from any city? Probably not. Even if we did have cities with scores of 700, they wouldn’t be paragons of social consciousness. The ways that researchers capture things like racial equality and food access are imperfect. Still, if you live in one of these cities, you’ll probably find some truth in their scores.
To get a rough measure of each city's social consciousness, we used the sum of seven factors. Each factor, detailed below, was transformed into a rating between zero and 100. In most cases, the highest value on any scale was converted to 100, while the lowest was converted to zero (in some cases, such as healthcare cost, the opposite is true).
Then we totaled each city's scores to get their final score out of 700.
Unfortunately, not every city had data points for every factor. If a city was missing more than two data points, we left it out of the ranking. We know this isn't totally fair to every city, but we also didn't want to use the average score and let some cities slide by on one or two really high numbers. In the end, this seemed like the most balanced way to deal with cities that didn't show up in all of the datasets we referenced.
Here's how we calculated each factor:
To develop our equality score, we used three sources: Governing.com’s black-white dissimilarity index, the 2018 American Community Survey’s gender pay gap (table S2411), and the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index. We averaged the transformed values of all three to create the equality score for each city.
The black-white dissimilarity index looks at "how evenly distributed demographic groups are throughout a larger area." While some cities might be more accurately classified by other racial comparisons, this was the most available statistic for racial equality in large cities.
The Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index measures LGBTQ inclusivity based on "non-discrimination laws, the municipality as an employer, municipal services, law enforcement, and the city leadership's public position on equality."
The Census Bureau's American Community Survey shows women’s pay as a percentage of men’s at multiple levels, including metro areas.
We used four sources to develop our neighborliness score: volunteering rate, crime rate, proportion of homeless who are sheltered, and immigrant friendliness. After transforming each item into a 0–100 value, we averaged all four to get the neighborliness score.
The National Service Agency calculated volunteering rates using three to four years of pooled data leading up to 2015. The survey ranks large and mid-size cities using data from a national survey.
To measure crime rates, we used the FBI’s 2018 Crime in the United States report. Ranking cities by crime rate is a fraught practice; the FBI cautions against using its data to rank locales because factors as diverse as population density, youth population, climate, crime reporting practices, economic conditions, modes of transportation, and cultural and religious factors can affect crime statistics. By combining this measure with three others to produce our neighborliness score, we deemphasize its importance in our ratings while still acknowledging that crime matters.
The proportion of the homeless population that is sheltered comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which conducts a point-in-time count of homeless individuals on one night every January. We used the most recent results from the January 2019 survey.
Unsheltered homelessness has risen over the last five years as the number of emergency beds and transitional housing units has declined. More than half a million Americans were homeless in 2019, and 37% were unsheltered, meaning they were staying on the street, in abandoned buildings, or in similarly inhospitable places. While only 13% of the U.S. population is African American, 40% of the homeless population is.
We used the New American Economy (NAE) Cities Index to measure a city’s friendliness to immigrants. The Index looks at numerous factors in each city that affect immigrants, such as language support, immigrant-focused government and community services, and anti-wage-theft laws, along with the median income immigrants earn, their naturalization rate, and much more.
The Economic Policy Institute measures the income a family needs to attain a modest standard of living. One measure in its Family Budget Calculator, published in March 2018 and based on 2016 data, is the cost of child care for a two-child family.
It assumes that one child is four years old and needs full-time, year-round care and the other child is eight years old and needs nine months of before- and after-school care and two months of full-time summer care. EPI also assumes the family uses center-based rather than home-based care.
The 2019 U.S. Cities Sustainable Development Report ranks 105 U.S. cities on their progress toward meeting each of the UN’s 16 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. The score ranks 57 indicators per city that contribute to goals such as clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, and zero hunger.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service produces a 275-variable Food Environment Atlas examining factors such as access and proximity to a grocery store (with subcategories for access by low-income households, seniors, and children), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients, and household food insecurity. It was last updated in March 2018.
To score cities on public transit, we used the AllTransit Performance Score, which looks at availability and frequency of service, connectivity to jobs, coverage area, and the percent of commuters who take transit to work. The Center for Neighborhood Technology assembles and analyzes this data.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Marketplace Index provides the basis for our health care cost scores. This index is based on an analysis of 1.8 billion health care claims from 2012 through 2016 for individuals with commercial health insurance.
- Baltimore City Health Department (2017). State of Health in Baltimore: White Paper.
- Center for Neighborhood Technology (2019). AllTransit Rankings.
- Corporation for National and Community Service (2015). City Rankings by Volunteer Rate.
- Economic Policy Institute (March 2018). Family Budget Calculator.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (2018). Crime in the United States.
- Franklin, Steve (n.d.). ChicagoStories.org. Immigrant Chicago.
- Ginsberg, Thomas (2018). Pew Charitable Trusts. Philadelphia's Immigrants.
- Human Rights Campaign (2019). Municipal Equality Index.
- Lynch, Alainna, Anna LoPresti, and Caroline Fox (2019). Sustainable Development Solutions Network United States. The 2019 US Cities Sustainable Development Report.
- Maciag, Michael (2019). Governing.com Residential Segregation Data for US Metro Areas.
- New American Economy (2019). NAE Cities Index.
- Health Care Cost Institute (2020). Healthy Marketplace Index Interactive Report.
- U.S. Census Bureau (2018). American Community Survey: Table S2411: Occupation by Sex and Median Earnings in the Past 12 Months.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (2018). Food Environment Atlas.
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (2019). The 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress: Part 1: Point-in-Time Estimates of Homelessness in the U.S.