Golden State takes worrying lead in US 'miserable index'


So now it becomes clear why Arnold Schwarzenegger spent millions of dollars of his own cash on a private jet to commute from Los Angeles to Sacramento during his eight years as Governor of California: the Golden State's political capital has been officially named one of America's "most miserable" cities.

Four of the five worst places to live in the entire US can now be found in California, according to a league table published yesterday by Forbes magazine. It suggests that the state's reputation for beautiful people, golden sands and metropolitan affluence is based on slick marketing rather than economic reality.

The survey compared 10 factors – including unemployment, tax rates, commute times, crime levels, and the condition of the housing market – in every major metropolitan area in the country. Stockton, inland from San Francisco, was named as the most miserable city in America for a second consecutive year. It is closely followed by Merced, Modesto and Sacramento, home to the historic Capitol where members of California's dysfunctional legislature have for years been facing down a severe fiscal crisis. In total, eight of the top (or rather bottom) 20 US cities in the Forbes table can be found in deprived inland areas of the state.

The miserable showing suggests that the so-called Californian dream – of gentle prosperity and a laid-back lifestyle – is largely limited to residents of exclusive postcodes in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. Elsewhere, more than 10 per cent of the state's 37 million citizens are without a job, and 500,000 homes are in foreclosure.

"Good vibes are a distant memory," was how Forbes put it. "The state [faces] 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 per cent last year, a record low for any sitting California Governor."

The incoming Governor, Jerry Brown, is attempting to reduce his administration's $28bn deficit – which last year saw it flirting with bankruptcy and issuing IOUs to creditors – by both slashing spending and raising taxes. But he has so far been unable to get his plans endorsed by lawmakers.

California's poor showing in the survey is particularly surprising given that one of the 10 factors assessed by compilers of the "misery index" is weather. It gets more sunshine than almost any other part of America, so in theory the standing of local cities ought to have been handily boosted. Another one of the 10 factors which counted in California's favour is the success of local sports teams. The San Francisco Giants won baseball's World Series last year, while LA's Lakers are the nation's current basketball champions.

But wider economic strife has eclipsed those gains. Stockton, where median home prices tripled between 1998 and 2005, before dropping to a third of their peak value, illustrates the scale of California's woes. Seven per cent of the city's homes are currently in foreclosure and one in five residents are unemployed.

Locals have not taken kindly to their brush with notoriety, though. "This is the equivalent of bayoneting the wounded," Bob Deis, Stockton's city manager, said yesterday in response to the Forbes survey. "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."