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Ear to the Ground

Where Are the Hardest Places to Live in the U.S.?

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Posted on Jun 27, 2014

Photo by The New York Times/The Upshot

The Upshot, a New York Times data analysis venture, looked at six basic measures to get a picture of the quality and longevity of life in each county of the nation, including educational attainment, household income, jobless rate, disability rate, life expectancy and obesity rate.

See a detailed interactive map of the results here.

The study identified Eastern Kentucky, “land of storybook hills and drawls,” as the most difficult place to live.

Annie Lowrey wrote in The New York Times Magazine:

Clay County, in dead last, might as well be in a different country. The median household income there is barely above the poverty line, at $22,296, and is just over half the nationwide median. Only 7.4 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree or higher. The unemployment rate is 12.7 percent. The disability rate is nearly as high, at 11.7 percent. (Nationwide, that figure is 1.3 percent.) Life expectancy is six years shorter than average. Perhaps related, nearly half of Clay County is obese.

It’s coal country, but perhaps in name only. In the first quarter of this year, just 54 people were employed in coal mining in Clay County, a precipitous drop from its coal-production peak in 1980. That year, about 2.5 million tons of coal were taken out of the ground in Clay; this year, the county has produced a fraction of that — just over 38,000 tons. Former mines have been reclaimed, and that land has been repurposed in scattershot ways: a golf course, shopping centers, a medium-security federal prison. But nothing has truly come to replace the industry on which Clay County once depended.

Alan Flippen of The Upshot discussed the lower ends of the findings:

As Ms. Lowrey writes, this combination of problems is an overwhelmingly rural phenomenon. Not a single major urban county ranks in the bottom 20 percent or so on this scale, and when you do get to one — Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit — there are some significant differences. While Wayne County’s unemployment rate (11.7 percent) is almost as high as Clay County’s, and its life expectancy (75.1 years) and obesity rate (41.3 percent) are also similar, almost three times as many residents (20.8 percent) have at least a bachelor’s degree, and median household income ($41,504) is almost twice as high.

Of the counties that fared better, he said:

At the other end of the scale, the different variations on our formula consistently yielded the same result. Six of the top 10 counties in the United States are in the suburbs of Washington (especially on the Virginia side of the Potomac River), but the top ranking of all goes to Los Alamos County, N.M., home of Los Alamos National Laboratory, which does much of the scientific work underpinning the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The lab directly employs one out of every five county residents and has a budget of $2.1 billion; only a fraction of that is spent within the county, but that’s still an enormous economic engine for a county of just 18,000 people.

Read Lowrey’s report here and see the data summary here.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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