There’s a common denominator that all bad small cities have.
They are the places that have bad economies. They are the places where the school systems are in bad shape. They’re the places where people are out of work, and where residents earn low salaries.
If home prices are low, it’s a sign that there’s not a lot of demand to live there.
And certainly, if crime is really high, no one wants to be there at all.
The cities we used in this report are small cities that have populations under 70,000. Many are suburbs of major cities where things aren’t going very well right now, at least according to data, which measures the good things that people say they want in a city.
There might be some surprises on this list, but when you look at the unbiased data, it’s hard to argue against. We had more than 10 million people read our worst cities in a state series, which was featured in hundreds of media outlets, including an NPR feature.
So we know what we’re talking about.
After analyzing over 400 cities with populations under 70,000, here is our list of the worst small towns in America:
- Wilson, NC
- Fort Pierce, FL
- Elkhart, IN
- Kissimmee, FL
- Pine Bluff, AR
- Roseville, MI
- Anderson, IN
- Niagara Falls, NY
- Utica, NY
- Kokomo, IN
You might be surprised to see some of these cities on this list. We understand there’s a lot of good in every place. However, according to data (which doesn’t measure things like beauty, ‘friendly people’ and community involvement), there are far better options in America for making a place home.
The best small town to live in America? Hoboken, NJ. More on that later.
How do you decide if a place is lousy or not?
In order to rank the worst small towns in America, we had to determine what criteria people like or dislike about a place. It isn’t a stretch to assume that people like low crime, solid education, things to do and a stable economy.
So we scraped the internet for those criteria, asked for the opposite of those, and it spit out the answer. Like magic.
How we crunched the numbers
We threw a lot of criteria at this one in order to get the best, most complete results possible. Using FBI crime data, the government census, Bureau of Labor Statistics and Sperling’s Best Places, this is the criteria we used:
- Population Density (The lower the worse – meaning there’s less to do for indoor entertainment)
- Highest Unemployment Rates
- Adjusted Median Income (Median income adjusted for the cost of living)
- High Housing Vacancy Rate
- Education (Low expenditures per student and high Student Teacher Ratio)
- High Crime
If you’d like to see the complete list of cities, scroll to the bottom of this post to see a link to the entire data set.
Note: We get the crime numbers from the FBI, which gets its crime numbers from the cities themselves. This list is based on data, and is entirely unbiased.
1. Wilson, NC
Public schools: 22nd worst
Crime: 26th worst in America
Unemployment rate: 9%
Wilson is a small, off-the-radar city a short drive east of the capital of North Carolina, Raleigh.
This isn’t a place to live if you value good public schools, safety and job growth. Wilson’s schools are some of the most overcrowded in the nation, in comparison to cities of similar size. And the unemployment rate is one of the highest of any cities we measured.
Murders here have gone up tremendously in the last 5 years, and the property crimes here are far above average for similarly sized cities.
The fact is, Wilson gets a D- when it comes to livability, when you take into account the desirable factors people say they want in a small home town.
2. Fort Pierce, FL
Incomes: 5th lowest in the US
Unemployment rate: 17th highest
Crime: 14th worst
Fort Pierce is a dangerous place where it’s really hard to get a job. A city of 42,000 people should not see 7 murders and more than 1 in 10 people shouldn’t be unemployed.
At least in a small city where people want to live.
When you’re within Fort Pierce city limits, you have a 1 in 71 chance of being killed, attacked or raped every year, according to FBI data.
In addition, families average just over the poverty line in income levels.
Fort Pierce is on Florida’s east coast a couple hours north of Miami. We’ll see more Miami area cities later on this list.
3. Elkhart, IN
Income levels: 32nd lowest
Elkhart is just outside of South Bend. For people who know South Bend for Notre Dame University, outside of the university connection, this part of the state is really struggling with above average crime and just a generally overall crummy economy.
1 in 10 residents in Elkhart are currently without jobs and home prices are just about as low as you can get at $88,000. When anyone with a pulse can purchase a home in a city, that’s a sign that there’s simply no demand to live there.
4. Kissimmee, FL
Income: 40th lowest
Crime: 48th worst
Kissimmee is a fairly dangerous place just outside of Orlando. Here, families earn about $35,000 a year – which doesn’t go very far in this part of the state.
Many of the inland cities in Florida struggle with crime and drug abuse anyways, and Kissimmee is smack dab in the middle of it all.
5. Pine Bluff, AR
Home prices: 7th lowest in the nation
Unemployment rate: 9.6%
The only category keeping Pine Bluff from ranking first on this entire list is the fact that its public schools seemed to be well funded. What we’ve found in our research over the years is that poorer cities with high crime rates tend to get the most focus from the state.
When you can buy a home for $70,000, it’s because there are lots of empty homes. And when there are lots of empty homes, it’s for a reason.
6. Roseville, MI
Home prices: 11th lowest in the U.S.
Unemployment rate: 10.6%
If you haven’t heard of Roseville, you have now. It’s a Detroit suburb that is pretty much one of the worst places you can live outside of a larger city center.
It’s not particularly dangerous here from a violent standpoint (though it gets really scary quickly as you head south). But property crimes here are some of the highest of any city its size. When you’re within city limits, you have a 1 in 20 chance of being robbed every year, according to FBI data.
7. Anderson, IN
Home prices: 8th lowest in the nation
Income levels: 35th lowest
Those familiar with Indianapolis are aware of the struggles that go on in central Indiana when it comes to crime. Anderson is in the top 15% when it comes to sheer number of crimes for cities of its size.
Homes are bottom barrell cheap here, and folks who live here have the daily struggles of finding good jobs.
8. Niagara Falls, NY
Crime: 12th worst in the nation
Home prices: 5th cheapest
We’ve talked about Niagara Falls before when we chronicled the most dangerous cities in the state of New York. While many of the crimes that occur in Niagara Falls may be targeted at tourists, is living in a town where you have a 1 in 25 chance of being robbed every year a place you’d want to consider?
The average home in Niagara Falls costs $68,000. You don’t even see prices that low in the middle of Iowa.
9. Utica, NY
Home prices: 26th lowest
Income levels: 20th lowest
When we talked about the worst places to live in New York and mentioned Utica, we had lots of comments from Utica residents current and past who agreed with us. Many called Utica a ‘ghetto’, and a truly uninspiring place with a struggling economy and high crime.
Home prices are low, as are income levels. Both are towards the bottom in the nation for cities of similar sizes.
10. Kokomo, IN
Home prices: 17th lowest
What really sets Kokomo back are the really low home prices and income levels. About an hour north of Indianapolis, not only can it be hard to ‘get ahead’, but it can also be relatively boring here for long stretches of the year.
Kokomo is far below average in the other categories we analyzed (crime, schools).
The fact that, like all of the other cities on this list, there are simply far more desirable places to live.
The next 20
Here are the grades for the next 20 cities on the list. The complete scoring chart is at the bottom (desktop only).
11. Middletown, OH. Grade: C-
12. El Centro, CA. Grade: C-
13. York, PA. Grade: C-
14. Meridian, MS. Grade: C-
15. Springfield, OR. Grade: C-
16. Delano, CA. Grade: C-
17. Binghamton, NY. Grade: C-
18. Pontiac, MI. Grade: C-
19. Mishawaka, IN. Grade: C-
20. Lancaster, PA. Grade: C-
There You Have It
If you’re looking at small cities in the U.S. where crime is high, people are broke, and the public schools are lousy, this is an accurate list.
Mobile users: Here’s a link to the complete data chart.
If you’re also curious enough, here are the best small cities in America, according to science.
- Hoboken, NJ (Pop. 49.949)
- Edina, MN (Pop. 48,334)
- Franklin, TN (Pop. 63,324)
- Waltham, MA (Pop. 60,345)
- Collierville, TN (Pop. 44,543)
We also made a map that compared each state’s education levels to its foreign country equivalent. You’ll love that one.