Special Report

50 Worst Cities to Live In


To determine America’s 50 worst cities to live in, 24/7 Wall St. considered the roughly 550 cities that the U.S. Census Bureau reported as having populations of more than 65,000 residents in 2015. We considered only the lowest ranking city in each county. Data were collected in nine major categories: crime, demographics, economy, education, environment, health, housing, infrastructure, and leisure.

Within each category, specific measures contributed to a city’s overall category score. For example, the economy category included median household income adjusted for cost of living, the ratio between the city and its state’s median household income, poverty and unemployment rates, as well as the city’s three-year employment growth. Each measure was adjusted to range from 0 to 1 using min-max normalization, with lower scores indicating better outcomes.

The crime category consists of both violent and property crime rates from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2014 Uniform Crime Report.

The economy category includes a city’s 2014 unemployment rate and employment growth from 2013-2015, both from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally, we considered the poverty rate. Cities were penalized for having poverty rates above the national rate of 15.5%. We adjusted median household income for cost of living in the city. A city was penalized if cost-adjusted income was less than $43,000 or more than $107,000, roughly 80% to 200% of a typical household income nationwide. Poverty rates and median income came from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Cost of living data came from real estate tracking company Homefacts.

As a proxy for school system strength, we considered high school standardized test scores relative to state scores from Homefacts. Test score data are for 2014 or the most recent available year. Additionally, the education category includes the percentage of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree from the ACS, as well as the number of colleges and universities in a city per 100,000 residents from the Department of Education.

Whereas other measures in this index are specific to an individual city, many metrics in this category describe the county in which the city is located. Using data from Homefacts, we constructed an air quality index, which assessed levels of a number of pollutants on a given day. We also reviewed average summer and winter temperatures in each area. However, rather than penalizing cities for having colder than average winters, we compared each city’s temperature to seasonal averages within its own Census region. We also considered average monthly rainfall from Homefacts.

From the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), we calculated 30-day risk-adjusted mortality rates of heart attacks, COPD, heart failure, pneumonia, and stroke. Also from CMS, we looked at the rate at which individuals were readmitted to a hospital within 30 days of being discharged. Additionally, we included the health care advocacy nonprofit Leapfrog Group’s hospital grading, which considers a host of measures related to a hospital’s care delivery and patient response surveys. This category also includes preventable hospitalizations — the share of hospitalizations that could have been treated with outpatient or ambulatory care for every 1,000 Medicare recipients from County Health Rankings.

In our housing index, we considered the ratio of a city’s median home value to the statewide median value. Cities were penalized if home values in the city were less than 90% of statewide home values, or at least 25% higher than the state median value. We also included the ratio of median home value to median household income. We also considered median property taxes as a percentage of median home value. All data in this category came from the 2015 ACS.

From the ACS, we considered the percentage of commuters travelling to work by foot or public transportation. Additionally, we reviewed the average time it takes to travel to work each day. Lastly, we included the number of airports in the metro area in which the city is located. There are, for example, no airports in New York County, the primary county in New York City. However, at least three major airports exist outside county limits — and within the metro area — that service people who live in the city. Airport data came from the Federal Aviation Administration and only considers operational public-use and commercial airports as of 2015.

The leisure category can be broken into two parts — activities that take place in the city and outside of it. Within a city, residents may take advantage of restaurants and bars, libraries and archives, theater companies, fitness and recreational sports centers, museums, movie theaters, hotels, or amateur and professional sports teams. We included in this index the number of zoos, nature parks, ski resorts, and golf courses in the county surrounding the city. All data in this category were aggregated to the city level from 2014 Zip Code Business Patterns, a program maintained by the Census and adjusted for the city’s 2015 population.

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