Kurt Badenhausen, Forbes.com
Feb 2, 2011
Arnold Schwarzenegger was sworn in as the governor of California at the end of 2003 amid a wave of optimism that his independent thinking and fresh ideas would revive a state stumbling after the recall of Gov. Gray Davis.
The good vibes are a distant memory: The Governator exited office last month with the state facing a crippling checklist of problems including massive budget deficits, high unemployment, plunging home prices, rampant crime and sky-high taxes. Schwarzenegger's approval ratings hit 22% last year, a record low for any sitting California governor.
California's troubles helped it land eight of the 20 spots on our annual list of America's Most Miserable Cities, with Stockton ranking first for the second time in three years.
Located in the state's Central Valley, Stockton has been ravaged by the housing bust. Median home prices in the city tripled between 1998 and 2005, when they peaked at $431,000. Now they are back to where they started, as the median price is forecast to be $142,000 this year, according to research firm Economy.com, a decline of 67% from 2005. Foreclosure filings affected 6.9% of homes last year in the Stockton area, the seventh-highest rate in the nation, according to online foreclosure marketplace RealtyTrac.
Stockton's violent crime and unemployment rates also rank among the 10 worst in the country, although violent crime was down 10% in the latest figures from the FBI. Jobless rates are expected to decline or stay flat in most U.S. metro areas in 2011, but in Stockton, unemployment is projected to rise to 18.1% in 2011 after averaging 17.2% in 2010, according to Economy.com.
"Stockton has issues that it needs to address, but an article like this is the equivalent of bayoneting the wounded," says Bob Deis, Stockton city manager. "I find it unfair, and it does everybody a disservice. The people of Stockton are warm. The sense of community is fantastic. You have to come here and talk to leaders. The data is the data, but there is a richer story here."
There are many ways to gauge misery. The most famous is the Misery Index developed by economist Arthur Okun, which adds unemployment and inflation rates together. Okun's index shows the U.S. is still is in the dumps despite the recent gains in the economy: It averaged 11.3 in 2010 (blame a 9.6% unemployment rate and not inflation), the highest annual rate since 1984.
Our list of America's Most Miserable Cities goes a step further: We consider a total of 10 factors, things that people gripe about around the water cooler every day. Most are serious issues, including unemployment, crime and taxes. A few we factor in are not as critical, but still elevate people's blood pressure, like the weather, commute times and how the local sports team is doing.
One of the biggest issues causing Americans angst the past four years is the value of their homes. To account for that we tweaked the methodology for this year's list and considered foreclosure rates and the change in home prices over the past three years. Click here for a more detailed rundown of our methodology.
Florida and California have ample sunshine in common, but also massive housing problems that have millions of residents stuck with underwater mortgages. The two states are home to 16 of the top 20 metros in terms of home foreclosure rates in 2010. The metro area with the most foreclosure filings (171,704) and fifth-highest rate (7.1%) last year is Miami, which ranks No. 2 on our list of Most Miserable Cities.
The good weather and lack of a state income tax are the only things that kept Miami out of the top spot. In addition to housing problems (prices are down 50% over three years), corruption is off the charts, with 404 government officials convicted of crimes this decade in South Florida. Factor in violent crime rates among the worst in the country and long commutes, and it's easy to understand why Miami has steadily moved up our list, from No. 9 in 2009 to No. 6 last year to the runner-up spot this year.
California cities take the next three spots: Merced (No. 3), Modesto (No. 4) and Sacramento (No. 5). Each has struggled with declining home prices, high unemployment and high crime rates, in addition to the problems all Californians face, like high sales and income taxes and service cuts to help close massive budget shortfalls.
The Golden State has never looked less golden. "If I even mention California, they throw me out of the office," says Ron Pollina, president of site selection firm Pollina Corporate Real Estate. "Every company hates California."
Last year's most miserable city, Cleveland, fell back to No. 10 this year despite the stomach punch delivered by LeBron James when he announced his exit from Cleveland on national television last summer. Cleveland's unemployment rate rose slightly in 2010 to an average of 9.3%, but the city's unemployment rank improved relative to other cities, thanks to soaring job losses across the U.S. Cleveland benefited from a housing market that never overheated and therefore hasn't crashed as much as many other metros. Yet Cleveland was the only city to rank in the bottom half of each of the 10 categories we considered.
Two of the 10 largest metro areas make the list. Chicago ranks seventh on the strength of its long commutes (30.7 minutes on average--eighth-worst in the U.S.) and high sales tax (9.75%---tied for the highest). The Windy City also ranks in the bottom quartile on weather, crime, foreclosures and home price trends.
President Obama's (relatively) new home also makes the cut at No. 16. Washington, D.C., has one of the healthiest economies, but problems abound. Traffic is a nightmare, with commute times averaging 33.4 minutes--only New York is worse. Income tax rates are among the highest in the country and home prices are down 27% over three years.
And it does not get much more miserable than the sports scene in Washington. Beltway fans should be grateful for the NHL's Capitals, their only major pro team to finish out of the basement in the last two seasons. The Nationals (MLB), Redskins (NFL) and Wizards (NBA) have all finished in last place in their respective divisions the past two years.
America's Five Most Miserable Cities
No. 5: Sacramento, Calif.
No state taxes $50,000 of income like California, with a rate of 9.55% for that middle-class tax bracket. Sacramento is a one-team sports town, and that team has been awful in recent years. The NBA's Kings have won just 26% of their games the past two-plus seasons.
No. 4: Modesto, Calif.
The median home was valued at $275,000 in 2006; today it is $95,000. And don't leave your car on the street in Modesto, where 3,712 vehicles were stolen in 2009, making for the second-highest auto theft rate in the country. It ranked first in four of the previous five years.
No. 3: Merced, Calif.
The economic downturn and busted housing market hit Merced harder than any other area in the country. Average unemployment of 16.2% since 2008 is the highest in the U.S., as is the city's 64% drop in median home prices.
No. 2: Miami, Fla.
The sun and lack of a state income tax are the only things keeping Miami out of the top spot. Foreclosures hit one in 14 homes last year. Corruption is also off the charts, with 404 government officials convicted of crimes this decade in South Florida.
No. 1: Stockton, Calif.
Unemployment has averaged 14.3% the past three years, which is third worst in the country among the 200 largest metro areas. The housing market collapsed as well, with home prices down 58% over the same time. All the California cities on the list are struggling with the inherent problems the state is facing, including high sales and income taxes and service cuts to help close massive budget shortfalls.