What U.S. cities are the most troubled?

Homeless Woman Lives In The Shadow Of Wealth Along New York's 5th Ave
The percentage of people living below the poverty level was just one of seven factors used in determining the most stressed cities in America.Chris Hondros / Getty Images file
/ Source: American City Business Journals

Hartford is a troubled city.

Connecticut’s capital is burdened with more socioeconomic stress than any other major city in the United States, according to a new study by American City Business Journals.

“Hartford is one of those places that continually pops up when urban hardship is measured,” says Lisa Montiel, a research scientist at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y.

“Several indicators point to Hartford’s problems,” she says. “The poverty level is substantial. A large percentage of its housing is old, and a good bit of that is vacant.”

ACBJ created a seven-part formula to rate socioeconomic stress, using raw data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau. The formula analyzed factors that can affect any city’s stability, such as poverty, unemployment, insufficient education and vacant housing.

Hartford holds the worst score among the nation’s 245 large cities, indicating that its stress level is the heaviest. The study defined large cities as localities with populations of 100,000 or more.

Newark, N.J., has the second-worst stress score, followed by Brownsville, Texas; Miami and Buffalo.

But not all cities are doing badly. At the opposite end of the scale is Naperville, Ill., which carries the lightest level of socioeconomic stress of any community with at least 100,000 residents.

Life in Naperville, about 30 miles west of Chicago, is characterized by high incomes, low unemployment and stable families.

“I would still characterize Naperville as very suburban. The population is what, 130,000? I’m always surprised to see that number on the welcome sign. To me, it doesn’t seem that big,” says Katharine Meyer, managing editor of West Suburban Living, a glossy magazine that covers the Naperville area.

Other large cities enjoying low socioeconomic stress are Livonia, Mich.; Overland Park, Kans.; Gilbert, Ariz.; and Thousand Oaks, Calif. Their populations are above 100,000, but they essentially remain suburbs of Detroit, Kansas City, Phoenix and Los Angeles, respectively.

Suburban roots give them an advantage over older, established cities like Hartford and Newark, in Montiel’s opinion. “It’s a case of them being at a different stage of development, being younger,” she says.

Behind the final score
The seven factors included in ACBJ’s study were:

  • Percentage of people living below the federally designated poverty level.
  • Ratio of households with low annual incomes (below $25,000) to those with high incomes (above $100,000)
  • Unemployment rate
  • Percentage of adults (25 or older) who didn’t graduate from high school
  • Percentage of households defined by the Census Bureau as “linguistically isolated,” meaning that no one older than 13 speaks English well
  • Percentage of families headed by one adult, with no spouse present
  • Percentage of homes sitting vacant (not including vacation homes)

Each city’s final score was calculated by comparing its performances in all seven categories against the national averages for all cities with populations of 10,000 or more.

A negative score indicates heavy stress, while a positive number signifies a light socioeconomic burden. Total scores for the nation’s large cities range from Hartford’s -16.16 to Naperville’s 6.32.

The massive gap between these two extremes becomes clearer when indicators are compared.

Nearly one-third of Hartford’s residents live in poverty, dwarfing Naperville’s rate of 2 percent. Roughly 40 percent of Hartford’s adults lack high-school diplomas, compared to just 4 percent in Naperville. And the share of “linguistically isolated” households is seven times larger in the Connecticut capital than the Illinois suburb.

ACBJ’s study of socioeconomic stress went far beyond major urban centers, covering 3,550 localities with populations as low as 10,000. Included were 874 unincorporated places that have the characteristics of cities, as determined by the Census Bureau.

Communities were divided into three size groups, with separate rankings issued for each.

Camden, N.J., has the highest stress level among 419 medium-sized cities, spanning a population range from 50,000 to 99,999. Maple Grove, Minn., carries the lightest burden.

The worst score on the stress test for 2,886 small cities (10,000 to 49,999 residents) belongs to Gladeview, Fla., while Fort Hunt, Va., does the best.

Similar results
ACBJ’S results are similar to those of a 2004 Rockefeller Institute report that analyzed the levels of “urban hardship” in 86 major cities. It ranked Hartford as the third most-troubled city in America, behind Santa Ana, Calif., and Miami.

“Typically, the cities at the worst end of the scale have been there for a long time,” says Montiel, one of the authors of the institute’s report.

Four cities with the highest stress levels in ACBJ’s study — Hartford, Newark, Miami and Buffalo — have consistently done poorly on the Rockefeller Institute’s index. Each has ranked among the nation’s 15 most-troubled cities ever since the institute began its rankings in 1970.

Their fate, says Montiel, can serve as an object lesson for cities everywhere.

“When we study urban hardship, we’re giving a warning,” she says. “We’re saying that there are certain factors that cities need to pay attention to. If they don’t, they could have serious problems in 30 or 40 years.”