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Debunking the Data Behind Those “Top Cities for Singles” Lists

Can you really quantify affairs of the heart?

The personal finance website NerdWallet recently crunched some numbers to create a list of the top cities in America for love-seeking singles. The site relied on city-level data from the U.S. Census Bureau about marriage status, median income, and the number of date-friendly businesses, such as restaurants and bars, along with a city’s walkability measure and the average cost of dinner and a movie. Boston claimed the No. 1 spot, while Minneapolis came in at No. 10. Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Atlanta, and Seattle all found spots in between.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]We all want to be loved. And everybody loves a good list. But perhaps we share these stories because we’re fascinated by hard data’s ability to reveal matters of the heart. [/quote]

The publication also created separate top 20 city lists for single women and single men based on gender ratios; a city with more men than women works in women’s favor, and vice versa. By this metric, single women should leave their hearts in San Francisco, while men are better off in Baltimore.

Fine metropolises all. But if you’re single and living in, say, D.C., are 70 percent of the residents really ready to swipe right? Not exactly. There are a lot of hidden nuances in the data—and other data sources to consider.

For instance, Pew Research Center has its own take on the best cities for single women, which factors in both male-female ratios and employment status. Nationwide, the number of employed single men is far lower than the total number of women. This is an important gap, because nearly 80 percent of women say they’re looking for a male partner with a job. The single scene looks less sunny, while in tech-centric San Jose, Calif., the top metro area for single women, there are 114 single employed men for every 100 single women.

Everyone, especially Facebook, loves being able to turn affairs of the heart into something they can quantify.

It turns out that NerdWallet cast an awfully wide net for singles, capturing everyone unmarried over age 15. Let’s skip over the teenagers and focus on the millennials, because they’re the ones of average marrying age. According to Pew, 24 percent of singles age 25–34—millennials all—actually live with a romantic partner. They’re not so single after all. Another third live with their parents—cohabitation with Mom or Dad can put a big cramp on dating.

Another factor to consider is the heterosexual orientation of NerdWallet’s report, which doesn’t include data on LGBT singles. That means the number of singles in cities with large LGBT populations, such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C., is a bit misleading. But don’t blame NerdWallet for this fuzziness in the data. Historically, it’s been difficult for demographers to get an accurate count of LGBT people, who have been understandably leery about outing themselves in a society hostile to their sexual orientation. But with cultural acceptance and legal marriage for LGBT Americans on the rise—and U.S. Census Bureau population surveys evolving to reflect the diversity of contemporary life—our ability to see them in the data is also improving.

This analysis was picked up by publications nationwide. Why? Well, we all want to be loved. And everybody loves a good list. But perhaps it’s also because we are fascinated by hard data’s ability to reveal matters of the heart. Right now, the data suggest Americans are conflicted about what love looks like. Does it come with a ring? Does it last? Will we choose to share the rent but not sign the papers?

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]24 percent of singles age 25–34—millennials all—actually live with a romantic partner. They’re not so single after all. [/quote]

Today we marry later than we used to. From 1960 to today, the median age for women to marry has jumped from 20 to 27. For men, the age has risen from 23 to 29. According to Pew, 53 percent of singles say they want to eventually tie the knot. At the same time, half of all Americans don’t see marriage and children as a priority for society; America is just as well off if people focus on other aspects of life, they say. The younger they are, the more likely they are to say this (67 percent)—and they’re likely to be single at about the same rate.

Moreover, some people may never tie the knot. According to Pew projections based on census data, when today’s young adults reach their mid-40s to mid-50s, a record-high 25 percent of them are likely to have never been married. Here’s a related point to consider. It’s possible some cities have high rates of single residents not because they’re havens for dating, but because they aren’t. Perhaps people either don’t want to be in a relationship or have difficulty finding one that lasts.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, Last year Facebook created its own top 50 list of cities for singles based on its enormous real-time data set. The social media behemoth tracked how many users changed their relationship status from “single” to “in a relationship” in October 2013.

The results were strikingly different from those of NerdWallet and Pew. Big cities like San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York may have some of the highest percentages of singles, but they also have the lowest rates of coupling up.

Remember those Silicon Valley tech bros Pew says are the No. 1 group of employed bachelors for single women? Maybe not so much. According to Facebook, San Jose is the second worst place to be if you’re looking for a lasting bond. Singles tend to stay single here.

It’s in cities like Colorado Springs, El Paso, and Louisville where relationships are far likelier to form, Facebook says. The right mix of demographics, city size, and cultural factors—such as traditional mindsets—likely lead people to pair up at higher rates.

Illustrations by Brian Hurst

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