We all love contemplating what makes a place worth living in. For some, it’s jobs and schools. For others, it’s recreation or the environment, or a reasonable cost of living. But whatever your criteria, one thing’s certain: In the transient, often rootless culture of the American West, the search for the Big Rock Candy Mountain is endless—and sometimes hard.
Luckily, the New York Times has done some legwork for us. Last week, the paper crunched stats about education, household income, unemployment, disability, life expectancy and obesity for each county in the U.S. and created this interactive map, ranking where Americans are doing well and where we’re struggling.
The criteria seek to measure quality-of-life factors that go beyond simple GDP, though they fall short of addressing environmental quality or social mobility, mostly because such data wasn’t consistently available. Still, the map paints a stark picture. Six of the ten roughest places to live are in the Appalachians of eastern Kentucky. In the West, low-ranking counties are in Navajo Nation, interior Alaska, central California and other impoverished rural areas you might expect.
There were also some surprises. Despite Wyoming’s reputation as a stark place to call home, the state did well across the board: not a single county there ranked below average. But the biggest surprise may be the county that grabbed the numero uno, best-place-to-live title. It’s in the West, yes. But if you’re thinking Boulder, think again. San Francisco? Nope.
Think desert. Think… nukes.
Yep — the highest quality of life in the U.S. could be in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a tiny 109-square-mile county northwest of Santa Fe, population 18,000, birthplace of the Manhattan Project. There, PhDs cluster in such high numbers that anyone with a master’s can feel like a second-class citizen. Sixty-three percent of residents have a college education (the national average is 28 percent), unemployment is 3.5 percent (the national average is 6.3 percent) and folks there can expect to live a few years longer than elsewhere in the country.
Yet how far can such rankings go? For one thing, they don’t account for the social and environmental costs of having the world’s most famous nuclear facility in your backyard. Several Los Alamos canyons served as WWII- and Cold War-era dumping grounds for heavy metals, high explosives and radioactive materials, and community groups have long been concerned that runoff from the canyons could contaminate drinking water and fisheries in the Rio Grande.
After a scorching wildfire and ensuing monsoons in 2000 exacerbated such concerns, the feds spent $14 million on erosion control. But local groups weren’t satisfied. They sued the national laboratory for violating the Clean Water Act, and in 2011 reached a settlement requiring massive environmental restoration. A leak earlier this year at the underground repository where the nuclear waste was being moved has delayed the clean ups.
Plus, though the median income in Los Alamos is $106,426, it’s an anomaly in a state with consistently high poverty and income inequality. Increasing drought and fire are persistent threats, and because New Mexico employs a high number of federal workers at Los Alamos and elsewhere, federal budget cuts have hurt the state more than most.
Nonetheless, the white-collar nuclear jobs at Los Alamos are more reliable and come with less crime and long-term socioeconomic decline than traditional boom-and-bust energy-sector jobs. HCN subscriber Val McCabe, who raised five children in Los Alamos, says there’s something to be said for living in “the kind of town where you know that your daughters will never be accosted within city limits.”
But not everyone sees the world like census-takers and data-crunchers. Some — like HCN subscriber David Gardner, who says he’d rather take a $20,000 a year job in a beautiful place than get $90,000 and a stew of toxic chemicals — base our choices on the kinds of things that can’t be measured.
Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.