Special Report

The Happiest (and Most Miserable) Cities in America

Evan Comen, Samuel Stebbins, Thomas C. Frohlich

Source: Thinkstock

10. Montgomery, AL
> Poverty rate: 19.6%
> Obesity rate: 32.9%
> Violent crimes per 100,000: 400.7
> 5-year pop. change: -0.4%

Low incomes often cause unhealthy levels of stress as they can prevent families from meeting basic needs. Close to 40% of Montgomery survey respondents said they worried about money in the last seven days, the 15th highest share out of almost 200 metro areas. With such financial insecurity, 22.2% of respondents said they did not have enough money for food, and 21.4% said they did not have enough money for health care, each well above the respective national percentages.

Nearly 20% of areas residents live in poverty, one of the highest poverty rates nationwide. Poverty can contribute to and is common among relatively unhealthy populations. In Montgomery, 32.9% of adults are obese, compared to a national rate of 27.0%.

Source: Thinkstock

9. Erie, PA
> Poverty rate: 17.5%
> Obesity rate: 30.7%
> Violent crimes per 100,000: 234.4
> 5-year pop. change: -1.0%

Some unhealthy habits are relatively common in Erie, Pennsylvania. Just over 21.5% of area adults are smokers, one of the higher shares of all U.S. metro areas. Unhealthy habits do not stop with tobacco use. Erie residents are also far more likely to depend on substances to control their mood than the typical American. According to Gallup, 28.8% of survey respondents in Erie take medication or drugs to help them relax almost every day, the highest share of any U.S. metro area and well above the 18.9% share of Americans. Many area residents who are dependent on drugs are likely abusing prescription pain medication. Erie is one of the hardest hit areas in one of the states suffering the most from the opioid addiction epidemic.

Source: Thinkstock

8. Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX
> Poverty rate: 15.7%
> Obesity rate: 35.1%
> Violent crimes per 100,000: 522.2
> 5-year pop. change: 1.2%

Neary 15% of those surveyed in the Beaumont-Port Arthur metro do not regularly experience happiness, nearly the largest such share in the country. Poor physical health can detract from mental well-being, and by many measures, large shares of residents in the Beaumont area are physically unhealthy. Obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure are all far more common in the area than across the country as a whole. Making matters worse, some 22.5% of area residents lack health insurance, nearly the largest share in the country.

Poor economic conditions also likely detract from overall well-being in Beaumont-Port Arthur. The metro area is one of only a handful with an unemployment rate above 7%. Also, 23.4% of survey respondents cannot afford food, nearly the largest such share in the country.

7. Chico, CA
> Poverty rate: 21.8%
> Obesity rate: 25.2%
> Violent crimes per 100,000: 345.6
> 5-year pop. change: 2.5%

Some 50.7% of survey respondents in the Chico, California metro area report dealing with stress, the largest share of any metro area in the country. For many, stress may be directly linked to financial struggles. Nearly 40% of survey respondents in the area report worrying about money in the previous seven days, one of the largest shares in the country. Chico residents tend to earn less than most Americans as the median household income in the area is only $45,644 a year, about $10,000 less than the national median.

Low self-reported well-being in Chico is also likely the result of poor physical health for many area residents. One-third of survey respondents in Chico have regular physical pain, the ninth highest share in the country.

Source: Thinkstock

6. Flint, MI
> Poverty rate: 20.6%
> Obesity rate: 36.0%
> Violent crimes per 100,000: 581.4
> 5-year pop. change: -3.3%

News coverage of the Flint water crisis in recent years alerted the world to the poor judgment of the area’s public officials and the poor state of well-being of the city’s residents. Nearly 30% of surveyed area residents believe Flint is not the perfect city for them, the largest share of any metro area other than Fayetteville, North Carolina. While Flint’s water crisis was the result of several poor decisions at multiple levels of government, the public health emergency is symptomatic of the urban decay many poor Midwestern cities face. In recent decades, as the American auto industry declines, and General Motors reduced its facilities in the city, Flint’s economy has declined. Today, 20.6% of Flint residents live in poverty, and there are 581 violent crimes per 100,000 people — each among the highest rates of any metropolitan area. Nearly 18% residents report feeling unsafe, the fifth highest share nationwide.