"Worst" may seem like a harsh title to put on a city; instead, think of these as more of a collection of cities with the most room to improve. But before you leave a hometown on the list in search of greener pastures, remember that this is a look at each city's data, not its heart and soul. Selections are based on U.S. Census data, FBI crime statistics, reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and ratings from GreatSchools.org.
Starting the list is Jacksonville, the city with the largest population in Florida, where it's best to head outside and enjoy the great outdoors at the beach, on a tour, or playing or watching a sport. The city doesn't have shockingly poor statistics in any of our ranking criteria, but it doesn't do well in any of them, either. Unemployment rates were 5.9 percent at time of reporting; just 11 of the 69 ranked schools on GreatSchools.org had a score of eight or higher out of 10; and the rate of households without health coverage was 15.9 percent, according to 2012 U.S. Census data.
The Theme Park Capital of the World needs to work on getting its crime under control. It has one of the highest rates on our list, with FBI statistics showing 1,144 violent crimes and 8,115 property crimes reported in 2013. The other area where we saw Orlando lacking was in its higher-than-average rate of households without health care coverage, which was 20.7 percent, according to 2012 U.S. Census data. Compared with the rest of the list, Orlando had better school ratings (11 of its 63 ranked schools had a score of eight or higher out of 10), and a better unemployment rate of 5.2 percent at the time of reporting.
8. Lakeland/Winter Haven, Florida
The Sunshine State appears on the list again with the cities of Lakeland and Winter Haven. We combined the two cities as one entry because a lot of data combined them. While the area is home to the incredibly family-friendly Explorations V Children's Museum, it needs to explore improvements in some areas. These cities have an unfortunately high number of households without health care coverage (Lakeland was at 19.1 percent, according to 2012 U.S. Census data) and less-than-stellar school rankings (Only three of Winter Haven's 25 ranked schools had a score of eight or higher out of 10 on GreatSchools.org). Our research shows schools in Winter Haven have lower ratings overall than those in Lakeland.
While Atlanta is home to highlights like the Georgia Aquarium and the Carter Presidential Library and Museum, things aren't all that peachy in this city. It has high crime rates—2,693 violent crimes and 13,544 property crimes in 2013, according to FBI crime statistics; high unemployment—8.5 percent at time of reporting; and a high rate of households without health coverage—19.2 percent, according to 2012 U.S. Census data. Luckily, "Hotlanta" does have a bright side; the city's schools rate higher than many others on this list, with 14 of the 68 ranked schools on GreatSchools.org reaching a score of eight or higher out of 10.
6. Miami/Fort Lauderdale/Pompano Beach, Florida
These cultural hubs have given the world Pitbull, the Miami Children's Museum and the Miami Seaquarium, but the area needs to work on a few other family-friendly items. Specifically, these cities have some of the highest crime rates on the list. Miami alone had 2,379 violent crimes and 10,270 property crimes reported in 2013, according to FBI crime statistics. The area also has one of the highest rates of households without health insurance coverage. Miami was at 25.7 percent when the national average was 15.1 percent, according to 2012 U.S. Census data. And they have an unfortunate range in school quality ratings on GreatSchools.org. From best to worst: Miami, Pompano Beach, Fort Lauderdale. Miami had the best ratings even though only three of its 173 ranked schools had a score of eight or higher out of 10. Again, we combined the cities in this metro area because a lot of data combined the three.
We're halfway through, and we've arrived at Bakersfield. On the bright side, it's home to the Bakersfield Museum of Art and has a strong arts, culture and theater scene. This city has the first major drop in school ratings, with just six of the 118 ranked schools getting a score of eight or higher out of 10 on GreatSchools.org. In our other criteria, it is above the national average across the board, including the number of households needing food stamps/SNAP assistance (14.9 percent, vs. the national average of 12.8 percent), according to 2012 U.S. Census data. On a happier note, Bakersfield has one of the lowest crime rates on this list, only 934 violent crimes and 8,327 property crimes were reported in 2013, according to FBI crime statistics.
They say everything is bigger in Texas, and in McAllen they may be right. Its stats are large when it comes to the number of households without health care coverage and the number of households needing food stamps/SNAP assistance. McAllen had more than double the national rates, at 36.5 percent and 33.8 percent respectively, according to 2012 U.S. Census data. But not everything is bad news in this border town. The city is home to the International Museum of Art and Science, which is a part of the Smithsonian Affiliation Program, and does have high school ratings and low crime rates compared with other cities on this list.
Fresno has a wealth of learning opportunities with such facilities as the Downing Planetarium, the Discovery Center Museum of Science and Natural History, and more. Unfortunately, on this list, this Golden State city isn't so golden. Fresno has the second-lowest school rating on our list, with only five of its 221 ranked schools on GreatSchools.org getting a score of eight or higher out of 10. The city can also improve its rating by lowering its higher-than-average unemployment rate (11.4 percent at time of reporting) and high number of households without health insurance coverage (20.4 percent, according to 2012 U.S. Census data).
Our list continues in the state of California, where Modesto features many agriculturally focused sights and tours for everyone to enjoy. But when you step away from the fun, the city has high unemployment at 10.6 percent, compared with the 6.7 percent national average. And while the city doesn't excel in our other categories, it also doesn't have the worst statistics. If and when the unemployment rate turns around, the other item that truly needs improvement is the school system, which has some of the lowest ratings on the list. Specifically, Modesto has only eight of 190 schools on GreatSchools.org with a score of eight or higher out of 10.
While Tennessee's capital Nashville placed well on our Top 10 Best Cities for Families 2014 list, Memphis didn't fare as well. On the bright side, it's home to the Memphis Pink Palace, a popular museum featuring dinosaurs and a planetarium. Residents and visitors can also find a fun learning space at My Big Backyard in the Memphis Botanic Garden, an interactive outdoor exhibit meant to get kids active and away from the TV. And of course, families can tour Elvis's Graceland estate in the Birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll. But outside of these activities, the city could use improvements across the board. Although not all are under the city's control, these are some of the reasons Memphis tops this list:
- High crime rates: According to FBI statistics, 5,419 violent crimes and 19,118 property crimes were reported in 2013.
- High unemployment: 7.9 percent at time of reporting
- Low school ratings (lowest of the cities on this list): GreatSchools.org shows only two schools garnering a rating of eight or higher out of 10.
- High percentages of households without health care coverage: 15.7 percent, according to 2012 U.S. Census data.