Special Report

This Is the Worst County to Live In

There are over 3,000 counties in America. Many are microcosms of how the very rich and very poor live. Others are examples of places where natural resources are abundant. Some counties are as small as a few square miles. Others are huge, like some of those in Wyoming. Some are parts of cities that have dense populations. Others, particularly in states like Alaska, are sparsely populated.

While there are countless factors (many of them subjective) that can contribute to or detract from quality of life, there are a few key objective measures that can reveal a great deal about a given area. The United Nations Development Programme identified some of these measures and created the Human Development Index (HDI), a tool to gauge and compare prosperity at a national level from a holistic perspective.

Inspired by the HDI, 24/7 Wall St. created an index of three measures (poverty, life expectancy at birth and bachelor’s degree attainment) to identify the worst U.S. county to live in.

The worst county to live in America is Todd County, South Dakota. Here are the details:

Poverty rate: 55.5%
Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 15.6%
Life expectancy at birth: 66.7 years
Total population: 10,195
Largest place in county: Rosebud

The three measures used to pick the county are closely related to each other. People living in poverty often are less able to afford health care or healthy lifestyles, both of which can have serious health repercussions. Similarly, higher educational attainment has been shown to improve health outcomes and reduce the likelihood of unemployment and financial hardship. Both high poverty rates and low educational attainment rates are common in parts of the United States with low life expectancy at birth.

Many of the counties we looked at are in rural Appalachian coal country, an area that has been economically decimated by the decline of coal mining in the United States. Once an economic pillar in communities across West Virginia and Kentucky, coal production has declined precipitously in these areas as the U.S. power grid moves away from coal and relies more on cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable energy sources.

Other counties are located in or around American Indian reservations. Native Americans commonly face generational poverty resulting, in part, from their historical mistreatment by the U.S. government. Certain existing conditions in some reservations also affect upward economic mobility. For example, reservation land is often communally owned, making it difficult for local residents to build wealth through homeownership.

Click here to see the worst counties to live in
Click here to see our methodology