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August 19, 2014 7:00 AM   Subscribe

The Upshot asked: Where are the hardest places to live in the U.S.? (A bit more on the ranking.) Now, given continuing economic divergence (previously): What do the two Americas search for?
posted by psoas (42 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Funny how the hardest places in America to live are the same places run by conservative, Old South values. Albion's Seed strikes again.
posted by grubi at 7:07 AM on August 19 [3 favorites]


and here are the 'easiest':

1. Los Alamos County, N.M.
2. Arlington County, Va.
3. Fairfax County, Va.
4. Loudoun County, Va.
5. Summit County, Utah (home of Park City, the upscale ski resort)
6. Montgomery County, Md.
7. Alexandria City, Va.
8. Lincoln County, S.D. (suburb of Sioux Falls)
9. Howard County, Md.
10. Williamson County, Tenn. (suburb of Nashville)

(The Virginia and Maryland counties are all in the greater Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area.)
posted by leotrotsky at 7:08 AM on August 19


grubi, #12 on the easiest list is my home county of Hamilton in Indiana. It is (to my chagrin) very very red state in voting patterns.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:10 AM on August 19


I am, of course, referring to the overall trend and not specific examples. Besides, rich suburbs are not exactly representative of conservative policies. They're were the ruling class lives.
posted by grubi at 7:12 AM on August 19


Here's a question, why doesn't the NY Times provide a spreadsheet or CSV file of their data? I'd love to be able to play around with the numbers, and I know I'm not alone. Why bother doing the work if they're going to be so sparing with the results?

It also means I have less conviction in their conclusions.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:14 AM on August 19 [8 favorites]


I am, of course, referring to the overall trend and not specific examples. Besides, rich suburbs are not exactly representative of conservative policies. They're were the ruling class lives.

That's picking and choosing though, isn't it? The correlation between poverty and social conservatism is long-standing in this country. Folks with precarious and uncertain lives seek stability where ever they can find it. When you pair that with a just world fallacy you get 'what's the matter with Kansas' and elsewhere.

EDIT: I'm not actually sure what I'm trying to say here.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:23 AM on August 19


They include % of obesity in the population as an indictator of "the hardest places to live." Then they conclude people in the hardest places to live are more likely to search for diets. That seems a little like stacking the deck. Would diets still show the same pattern of search results if the "hardest places to live" indicator did not include obesity as an indicator?
posted by jonp72 at 7:25 AM on August 19 [3 favorites]


Just remember their criteria: disability, college degree, life expectancy, obesity and unemployment.

I'd hardly call DC suburbs "easy" to live in. High cost of living, awful, awful, awful traffic, stress inducing lifestyle/pace of life, etc.
posted by k5.user at 7:26 AM on August 19 [12 favorites]


Yes, but in the DC suburbs you are more likely to earn enough to cover that high cost of living, and otherwise make your life comfortable.
posted by Longtime Listener at 7:30 AM on August 19 [2 favorites]


Another outlier, my home county of Orange, California is #100/~3000, and is pretty red, at least for coastal California.
posted by Huck500 at 7:33 AM on August 19


Clay County, Ky., which by several measures is the hardest place in America to live.

Old South values. Albion's Seed strikes again.

Maybe..

Decades of poverty and vote-buying led to widespread corruption in Clay County
There was a time when vote fraud was so pervasive in Clay County that a lot of honest people saw no reason to vote, said Ken Bolin, pastor of Manchester Baptist Church. "They knew it was already bought and paid for," Bolin said of local races. Vote-buying is deeply rooted in Eastern Kentucky's political culture, helping to make the region a hot spot for federal public-corruption cases.
The question is why is Democracy so weak in this area? I'm not sure Albion's Seed explains that. Maybe it was cronyism:
with small populations and many people related through blood or marriage, kinship and friendship have long created potentially compromising relationships between officials and criminals.
But how did this get started?
In Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, author Harry Caudill blamed the coal industry for helping to spread a culture of vote-buying. Coal companies paid to help elect compliant local officials who would keep their taxes low, help stifle union activity and protect the industry in court, Caudill wrote. Many people had little interest in politics and were willing to sell their vote for a few dollars and some liquor, he said.
Ahh.. King Coal!
posted by stbalbach at 7:45 AM on August 19 [2 favorites]


Yeah, some of the "easy" places seem odd to me... I'm not sure year round Nantucket residents would think they live in the 21st "easiest" place to live in the country. I'd imagine there are some vacation homes driving that up.
posted by maryr at 7:48 AM on August 19 [2 favorites]


So, why not move some of the high-paying government agency jobs from DC suburbs to rural Kentucky?
posted by Ideefixe at 7:56 AM on August 19


They really should adjust median income against cost of living.
posted by jpdoane at 7:56 AM on August 19 [11 favorites]


I see that Clay County is part of Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens' jurisdiction which now explains so much.
posted by Ber at 8:01 AM on August 19 [2 favorites]


So, why not move some of the high-paying government agency jobs from DC suburbs to rural Kentucky?

I was under the impression that these weren't actually gov't employees in these DC area counties, as much as they are employees of all the gov't-adjacent machinery. I have family friends that live just south of DC in VA, one is a speechwriter and the other is a superPAC fundraiser. I assumed that the rest of the area was similar, but I might be misled.
posted by DGStieber at 8:10 AM on August 19


Vengaboys and Zoolander? What decade was this search data culled from?
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:10 AM on August 19 [5 favorites]


Income seems like a weird measure unless you correct for cost of living. I can comfortably live in Iowa on a salary that would barely cover the rent in New York or San Francisco. Part of the reason that big cities don't make the list is that the average income is higher there, but I assume that's at least partly offset by the cost of housing.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:11 AM on August 19 [6 favorites]


So unless I'm missing something, these aren't the easiest places to live, they're the places with people who have the easiest lives, right? I mean if I go down to Breathitt KY and order a family to move to Los Alamos NM, that family's life is not going to get easier just because they moved.

So what would actually measure making a place easy to live. If I wanted to plunk that KY family down someplace and have their lives actually get better, what would that place have to look like?

I would think fabulous and cheap public transit (hopefully resulting in relatively traffic-free getting places), good schools within walking distance of any home, excellent healthcare with choice and available to all, a living wage law, high-quality public post-secondary institutions nearby that accommodate both full-time and part-time learners, low crime rates, high quality community centres and community centre programming, landlord tenant laws that protect both parties well, fairly-priced utilities (tiered like Las Vegas water? with income-based rebates?)...All those things I would think would make it easier for anyone to live, whether they be rich/poor more-educated/less-educated, healthy/ill. Anything else...?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:21 AM on August 19 [15 favorites]


Thanks to Congress, a lot of Federal jobs __are__ in the middle of %*#&ing nowhere.

There's been a lot of consolidation around DC during the past 15 years (thanks to the DOD), although that's a very recent thing (and mainly concentrated in VA at that).

Also, I think that there's (finally) been a realization that it's easier to attract a highly-educated workforce in an urban area. It'd be a tough sell for the NiH to try to recruit PhDs to relocate to Wyoming.

Realistically, the best option may be for the government to subsidize relocation for residents of poor rural areas that have virtually no viable economic prospects. (This wouldn't even need to be a direct subsidy -- you could largely achieve that goal by dumping money into education, or public works projects in nearby cities).
posted by schmod at 8:31 AM on August 19 [2 favorites]


I mean if I go down to Breathitt KY and order a family to move to Los Alamos NM, that family's life is not going to get easier just because they moved.

I mean ... it might. If Dad's working for a coal company in Breathitt, he's working a high-risk job that's likely to make him sick and land him on disability/kill him sooner rather than later. Move him to Los Alamos and get him a job working outdoors as a lawn care technician for a country club, and you might've just saved his life. You've also pulled his 14 year old son out of the cesspit of drugs that Appalachia is wallowing in, since now he doesn't know where the local Oxy/meth/heroin hook-ups are. So that's a start.

Obviously housing/cost of living play a role, but the fact is that Appalachia is really suffering in a way that other parts of the country just aren't. Literally, you can't find people living their lives the way people in the hollers of EK do. Crime and drug-wise, the closest you might get is the oil patches out in North Dakota. But most of those people have jobs. And, you know, running water and working electricity.
posted by none of these will bring disaster at 8:36 AM on August 19 [2 favorites]


Realistically, the best option may be for the government to subsidize relocation for residents of poor rural areas that have virtually no viable economic prospects.

It's been done. The findings suggest success is mixed. It has some benefits, but that's likely at least in part because the people who move are the people who would benefit. Those who wouldn't don't. That is, though the neighbourhood is randomized, some people turn down vouchers rather than move to low-poverty neighbourhoods. Why? Living in low poverty neighbourhoods can be a huge pain in the ass if you're poor: services for poor people aren't located in low-poverty neighbourhoods; they're in high-poverty neighbourhoods. So the people who can get by without these services or who have the means/ability/knowledge to access them anyway, move and in some ways their lives get better. Those who can't/don't, stay in the high-poverty neighbourhoods and their lives don't get better. But it doesn't follow that their lives would have gotten better if they'd moved -- for many their lives would have gotten worse, that's exactly why they didn't move.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:37 AM on August 19 [2 favorites]


Income seems like a weird measure unless you correct for cost of living.

Bingo. Living in the DC burbs, Making $100k a year for a family of 4 (the national median), is middle class, but this means both parents working, long commutes from affordable housing for parents and kids. And often a huge stretch to get into a "starter" house that will cost at least $400k (breaking the 3x rule), so they could be quite cash strapped at any given time.

But both parents can work. Both parents are probably degree holders, getting health insurance through their employers and with access to good hospitals. Their kids can go to good schools, and have choices of good affordable state universities too.

Is it easier to live that life than work until you break your back in a West Virginian Coal mine? Absolutely.

When I first read this, I pictured something more like a spot where a family, making $50k in some place with a lower cost of living means only one parent has to work, they can have a $150k house (meets the 3x rule), and have OK schools but also the disposable income to provide outside enrichments, and OK doctors but the ability to travel to a bigger hospital for serious cases. That seems like the place where life would be easy for a transplant to become the "big fish" in the "little pond".
posted by fontophilic at 8:40 AM on August 19 [1 favorite]



I mean ... it might...but the fact is that Appalachia is really suffering in a way that other parts of the country just aren't


Fair enough, but I'm not sure the measures used here are the best measures for determining where to plunk that family down for the easiest life, nor that the measures used are the best for figuring out where to pull people out of. For example, your description suggests that better measures might be crime, percentage of job openings in dangerous industries, or workplace safety regulation.

Measuring the proportion of the population with BAs, doesn't really tell you how easy it is to live in a place. Nobody ever said "boy, my life would be easier if my neighbours had gone to college." (It might, but only because it would affect other things -- measure those other things.)
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:44 AM on August 19


I went into this article the way I always do when I know I'm going to read about poverty and hardship, prepared to react the way I usually do: Oh how sad, it must be so hard, this is why anything to the right of socialism always fails, etc. You know, the usual sympathetic stuff one does.

Then I get four paragraphs in and realize: Oh shit! One of those counties is mine! Not where I live now, but the place my entire family comes from, the place where we hold our big redneck family reunions, the place I've really spent my entire life dissociating myself from. I mean, I knew it was bad there, but bad enough to make a "ten hardest places" list?

Apparently so! And it makes sense, because I know nowhere else that is so interested in self-sabotage. No money for education. No businesses that make any sense--there will be these odd tourist-type places, gift shops, that fold quickly because, well, they have literally no customer base. You can tan, you can get your nails done, but nothing much else survives, except maybe kaolin mines. I don't think there's even a Walmart in the county, and I had no idea that was even a possible sentence in our language anymore. There's nowhere to work, there's nothing to teach you how to do anything (with exceptions like training for becoming a cosmetologist or dialysis tech). There's church, hunting, and babies. If you want more than that, you flee. And after a while, I think that flight makes for some self-sustaining misery. Nobody stays to make things better, and there's no incentive for any outside industry to come in and prop things up. Nobody has any money, so there's no tax base. People who do have money, who stay, spend most of their money elsewhere. It's like the wheels of the capitalism mill have ground to a halt (and a huge part of that is how much of the older economy of a couple of generations ago was fueled by racism, the low, low wages you could offer black people, making for cheap child care, cheap farming).

It is such an ugly place to live--spiritually ugly, psychologically ugly. And yet it remembers itself as a good place, white row houses, men with carefully slicked hair boarding their big black cars to go to work, ladies who wore gloves to the grocery store. But soon everyone who remembers that era will be dead, and all that will be left will be the kids who have never known it as anything but a trailer park with a graveyard attached.
posted by mittens at 8:46 AM on August 19 [24 favorites]


Yeah. What mittens says. I've been impoverished in the rural south, and I now live in Fairfax County (We're number three! We're number three!) where I have a pretty comfortable white collar job and a pretty secure middle to upper middle class life.

Are servants carrying me around in a sedan chair, massaging my feet, and bringing me whatever I want? No. No they are not. There is a lot of stress here from traffic to politics to the high cost of living.

Is it "easier" than being poor in the rural south? Yes. Yes it is.
posted by Naberius at 8:55 AM on August 19 [5 favorites]


What decade was this search data culled from?

The NYT suggests using a search engine to find out.
posted by Mr. Six at 9:01 AM on August 19


I looked at the county where I grew up, where I lived for a number of years, and where I live now: all are doing pretty well in the shades of blue. Then I looked at the counties where my parents grew up: both are in the bottom third. Then I looked at the counties where my grandparents grew up: all four are in the bottom third. My maternal grandmother was from a county adjacent to one of the worst 10 (the mention of kaolin makes me think that mittens and I are probably cousins), and it's at number 35 itself.

And now I feel really lucky.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:17 AM on August 19


The Real Value of $100 in Each State

http://taxfoundation.org/blog/real-value-100-each-state
posted by vapidave at 9:38 AM on August 19 [2 favorites]


Measuring the proportion of the population with BAs, doesn't really tell you how easy it is to live in a place. Nobody ever said "boy, my life would be easier if my neighbours had gone to college." (It might, but only because it would affect other things -- measure those other things.)

US Census Report: High school graduates earn on average about a million dollars less over their adult working life than those those with a bachelors or masters degree. The gap is even greater for those with doctorates and professional degrees.

"At most ages, more education equates with higher earnings, and the payoff is most notable at the highest educational levels," said Jennifer Cheeseman Day, co-author of the report.

When I first read this, I pictured something more like a spot where a family, making $50k in some place with a lower cost of living means only one parent has to work, they can have a $150k house (meets the 3x rule), and have OK schools but also the disposable income to provide outside enrichments, and OK doctors but the ability to travel to a bigger hospital for serious cases. That seems like the place where life would be easy for a transplant to become the "big fish" in the "little pond".

That would be Delaware County, Ohio, #15.

Suck it, overpriced koolkid kounties.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:45 AM on August 19 [2 favorites]


> Realistically, the best option may be for the government to subsidize relocation for residents of poor rural areas that have virtually no viable economic prospects. (This wouldn't even need to be a direct subsidy -- you could largely achieve that goal by dumping money into education, or public works projects in nearby cities).

I'd argue that sort of program wouldn't do much. Poor families are, in a sense, already able in many ways to leave their impoverished town and move somewhere with better schools. Very few do. I don't think further improving the promising schools and giving up on the unpromising ones is going to be the incentive they need.

The financial and personal costs of relocating are considerably more difficult for the poor to overcome. Among the reasons is that they're more likely to be directly responsible for the welfare of family members, and they're more likely to have larger families, which makes relocation more difficult and urban life considerably more expensive.

Better-off areas of the country already have large populations of unemployed and working poor who want those opportunities too. They don't get to represent the economic tenor of the community because of all the people there who are better off, and they don't get the same benefit from the local economy that the interactive map implies.

I also have family and friends-of-family who I wish would leave their dying Podunks, but they won't, each for their own reasons. Some don't have the tangible burdens of extended family or extreme poverty holding them down where they are, but they don't share the same notion of quality education as a form of opportunity either -- either they believe what they have is just as good as whatever a top-rank public school could provide, or they have a cynical vision of education and credentialing as an unnecessary effort. It's going to take a cultural education, and probably a generation or two, to reverse this pattern of thinking.
posted by at by at 9:45 AM on August 19 [3 favorites]


I wonder how long it will be until these parts of the country will be completely emptied of people. Like, Chernobyl depopulated.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:02 AM on August 19


Interesting that except for Loudoun, all the DC area counties are the in close ones. People living in Stafford and Spotsylvania are making DC money with slightly lower costs of living, but we pay for it by spending our lives on I-95 trying to get to and from work.
posted by COD at 10:08 AM on August 19


Better-off areas of the country already have large populations of unemployed and working poor who want those opportunities too.

Yep. The difference between what they call "easy" and "hard" areas is not that the hard areas are blighted wasteland while the easy areas are a paradise of milk and honey where money grows on trees, and jesus christ what is wrong with those idiots that they don't just move to where everyone's rich?

Here in Fairfax County there are plenty of poor, uneducated, obese - whatever other measures they cite in the map - people whose lives aren't all that different from those of the poor residents of Shithole County, Mississippi. (Better social services to help them, maybe. Fewer Republicans in power.) The real difference is that in the "easy" counties, more people are doing well than in the "hard" counties (where I'm sure there are a few successful, comfortable families to be found as well.)


COD: People at my office in Reston routinely commute from Leesburg and Purcellville. (Some from freaking West Virginia!) That's the tradeoff. It's very expensive to live here and if you're a lower level office worker type with a couple of kids - which tends to mean you're either living on one income or paying a hell of a lot for child care - you pretty much need to live out in the outer counties if you want a decent home for those kids.
posted by Naberius at 10:21 AM on August 19


"Poor families are, in a sense, already able in many ways to leave their impoverished town and move somewhere with better schools."

Really? So if you have very little money you are advantaged and can move to a better neighborhood? Please elaborate.
posted by vapidave at 10:45 AM on August 19


I tried to use the rest of that comment to elaborate why the appearance of mobility does not amount to mobility. There's nothing there that says they're sufficiently advantaged to relocate at will.
posted by at by at 11:14 AM on August 19 [1 favorite]


Arlington County similarly has some fairly poor people, including quite a few recent immigrants, but again part of the difference is that even the poor have access to high quality education (the high schools regularly feature on lists of the country's best), decent public transportation (for the US), and good government services. Plus Arlington is a classic streetcar suburb, and the government has for decades tried to preserve that pattern, for example placing Metro stops at old in-county clusters. Thus most people have a cluster of stores and amenities within easy walking distance even if they can't drive/afford a car. So yes, I have no trouble believing it is a much easier place to live than most.

Of course, this has its own curse -- because it is such a nice place to live, the property values and rents go up. And the county government has tried to spread things around to the older and more run down areas... which means that places like Shirlington, which were once cheap places to rent become hip and high priced.
posted by tavella at 11:16 AM on August 19


I wonder how long it will be until these parts of the country will be completely emptied of people. Like, Chernobyl depopulated.

Um, never.
posted by maryr at 11:22 AM on August 19 [3 favorites]


I currently live in #31 and I find their view of "easy" somewhat suspect as well because while I have a wonderful life, am very lucky and enjoy the Twin Cities so much, it was much "easier" for me to live in #143 (Riley, KS) because though I made much less money and was in the middle of nowhere the cost of living was so much lower that we lived "easier" there.

I still wouldn't go back, but not because it wasn't easy to make a good, middle-class life there. I knew so many people in Kansas who made what would be nothing in Minnesota who lived well, owned homes and cars, were employed and were happy.

This is why there is no good way to rank "the best city" or "the easiest city" or whatever. Too many factors and personal preferences are at play. I don't disagree with their numbers, just their standards of "easy"
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 12:08 PM on August 19


k5.user, I'm a bit torn between sticking up for my home versus not waving my good fortune in other people's faces, but... "High cost of living, awful, awful, awful traffic, stress inducing lifestyle/pace of life, etc." Well, it depends...

I now live in Arlington and work in Springfield, so I don't face awful traffic (20 minutes of driving in the morning, 25 in the evening). You cite a high cost of living, but, we are living (and saving) on one salary, with the other adult at home for now raising our rising kindergartner. We live in a single family home in a green and leafy community, where our little girl plays in our yard and her (excellent) preschool is two blocks away. The elementary school bus stop is literally at the end of our driveway, we're one block from the Metro bus and one mile from the subway. The pace is up to us, with every level of intensity from laconic to blinding available at our whim.

Finally, if the stress you imagine was real and significant, it would have held back Arlington's health stats, and it doesn't look like that happened since Arlington came in as the second easiest county to live in in the entire country.

I'm lucky to live here. You don't have to want the same things I do, but if you're going to make pronouncements about it from afar it would probably be good to know the whole story.
posted by NortonDC at 8:10 PM on August 19 [1 favorite]


Move him to Los Alamos and get him a job working outdoors as a lawn care technician for a country club, and you might've just saved his life.

The way ahead for the impoverished is to provide services for the 1% and the 10%, lawn care is a profoundly promising growth industry.
posted by koebelin at 6:17 AM on August 20 [2 favorites]


I've been thinking about this. I live in a county that is very high up on the easiness index. It's not quite top 1%, but close. And I would agree: it's super easy to live here. Housing is really inexpensive; there's no traffic; all the schools are excellent. But there is a catch. Childcare is crazy expensive here. It's almost as expensive as in big cities. So really, it is super easy to live here if you don't have kids or if you do have kids and you don't pay for childcare. It's a tough, tough place to live if you're a single parent or a dual-parent family where you both want to or have to work outside the home. And that's the kind of nuance that is hard to catch in statistics like this.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:22 AM on August 20


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