Quality of life report gives Pa. a low score in safety

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A recent report comparing the well-being of individuals across 34 developed countries has found that, despite high education and employment rates, Pennsylvania safety levels are lower than those of Estonia.

Last Tuesday, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — a group of 34 democracies with market economies established in 1961 to promote global economic development — launched an interactive website where users can compare well-being across the 362 regions of the OECD countries.

Along with seven other indicators of quality of life, the OECD web tool evaluates safety, as measured by the number of annual murders. With a rate of 5.2 murders per 100,000 people, Pennsylvania received a grade of 2.3 out 10, rendering it more dangerous than 33 percent of the U.S. and 86 percent of the developed world.

A comparison of homicide victims in Pennsylvania’s three largest cities, however, reflects a regional disparity. Of the 685 murders reported in the state in 2011, 15 occurred in Allentown, 41 were in Pittsburgh, and a total of 181 victims were reported in the city of Philadelphia.

While Philadelphia is largely responsible for the state’s failing grade, Pennsylvania’s score isn’‍t an outlier. In fact, it reflects a national pattern. Of the 34 OECD countries, the United States is ranked the second most dangerous place to live. Mexico — where provinces such as Chihuahua register rates of 108 murders per 100,000 people — takes first place, with Estonia ranking third. The island-nation of New Zealand wins the title of safest country in the world.

The figures might seem alarming, yet homicide rates might not be accurate indicators of regional public safety.

“If you’re comparing quality of life across a wide geographical area, you have to choose data available in every country,” says Scott Beach, associate director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research. “But the murder rate varies drastically between urban and rural areas. It doesn’t mean very much at the state or national level.”

In addition to security levels, the OECD web tool measures quality of life based on exposure to air pollution, Internet access, voter turnout, life expectancy, household disposable income, employment rate, and education.

Pennsylvania’s steep homicide rate is counterbalanced by a score of 9.2 out of 10 for education, measured by the percentage of the work force that holds a diploma in secondary education or higher. According to the OECD, 88.6 percent of Pennsylvania workers are high school graduates.

Mr. Beach said the OECD’s method of assessing education might be more valid than its evaluation of public safety.

The web tool is part of a greater initiative by the organization to publish “How’s Life in Your Region?” a comparative critique of regional incentives to improve well-being. In addition to safety measures, the report will also evaluate the housing, social connections, and subjective life assessments of individuals across the 362 regions.

The full report can be found at www.oecdregionalwellbeing.org.

Rocio Labrador: rlabrador@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370.

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