Iowa, the ‘land where the tall corn grows’. Yes, it’s corn that most people think of when they hear the word ‘Iowa’…sometimes potatoes, because they get the state confused with Idaho, but you get our drift, right? ‘Corny’ jokes aside, Iowa is actually a beautiful place to live overall, with rolling hills, clean neighborhoods, and great schools.
It is the 29th state admitted to the United States union and is bordered by the Missouri River and Big Sioux River on its western border, and the Mississippi River on the eastern.
Dubbed ‘The Hawkeye State’ (for those of you not familiar with the great Iowa Hawkeye football team of the University of Iowa), it is referred to in honor of the scout ‘Hawkeye’, a character in the book ‘Last of the Mohicans’ by James Fenimore Cooper.
Rich in history and abundant in some of the finest growing soil the Earth has to offer, Iowa’s ability to basically stick with its country-rich roots has paid off…it has been voted one of the safest states in the US to live in.
Not without its Problems
With that being said, however, Iowa has locations that are less than savory, as all places do. Of course, bigger towns and cities see their share of lowness and hardship, and then there are places with high crime and/or riddled with drugs.
These are the places that anyone considering a relocation to this midwestern state should be aware of. So, in an effort to make things a bit easier on folks like that, or anyone who is simply curious, we have decided to put together a list of towns and cities in the Hawkeye State that may not be the best choice for anyone focused on the family lifestyle.
We have listed our choices from number twenty to number one, with one being the worst place to live in Iowa, according to our research. Check out the following, and you will not only further your education, but you will also learn a bit about a state that is being literally dragged into our modern times, no matter how hard they have fought to maintain the wholesomeness it has always known.
20. Cedar Rapids
First, we will take a look at some of this city’s good points: For Iowa Cedar Rapids is a fairly big city, with a variety of neighborhoods to choose from, and many jobs for the person looking to be employed outside the home.
Not too long-ago Cedar Rapids (or ‘CR’ as it is lovingly referred to by its inhabitants) was the epitome of wholesomeness, but the last twenty years have taken their toll.
Violence, drug activity, and a general lack of the citizens respect have resulted in downfall, as did the flood of 2008, which managed to wreak havoc on homes and business all over the place; many were never usable again, but still stand, shabby and stark. For these reasons, the once beautiful city of Cedar Rapids comes in at number twenty on our list.
While rated safer than 88% of the cities and towns in the United States as a whole, Marshalltown is another small city that has suffered from higher crime and drug activity, which caused it to be voted one of the trashiest cities in the state.
Mostly, Marshalltown rated fairly high in areas like commutability, affordability, and diversity, but when it comes to housing, education, and jobs, it rated pretty darn low. All of these reasons manage to bring this city in at #19.
This small Iowa town is home to a prison, which is cause for many to shy away to begin with. Now that we have that point out of the way, there really isn’t a lot to be said that is good about this town with a population of nearly 5,400.
The commute rating is great, and it’s considered an affordable place to reside, but it’s the crime rate everyone is talking about. It turns out that Clarinda has an average of 174 crimes committed per year, which comes out to a scary 3,250.5 crimes per 100K people.
This is more than 26% higher than the national average, so these facts should definitely be considered if Clarinda is on your list of relocation options.
This is a smaller town most have never heard of, much less find themselves able to pronounce. As a lifelong Iowa resident, and a longtime Oelwein citizen, the crime and drugs in this small town can be personally attested to.
The hometown-feel and affordability are outstanding, with large, beautiful homes going for next to nothing, however the departure of the one-time booming railroad industry and the drug epidemic in our nation finding a home in this town make it unnecessarily unsafe and even grimy.
Unfortunately, home is where the heart is, regardless of the sad facts. Oelwein comes in at number seventeen.
Considered something of a twin city to the neighboring Cedar Falls, Waterloo has an individual population of just over 68,000. But unlike Cedar Falls, it has a much worse reputation.
Good points first, the cost of living in this Iowa city is 0.8x lower than the national average, and it has a great commute rating. But the drugs and crime are the point, and Waterloo offers both in spades.
An average of 2,268 crimes are committed per year here, which is more than 30% above the national average, not to mention the fact that entire city has a dirty look and feel. If you have your heart set on Blackhawk County, Cedar Falls is definitely a wiser, better option.
15. Fort Madison
This Iowa town houses a men’s penitentiary, but it is maximum security, and not the reason for Fort Madison making our list. The reality of the situation is that while amenities and commute ratings are high and the cost of living there is below the national average, every other scorable point for this place is low, affordability, when compared to other similar Iowa towns.
It has a population of 10,614, with a crime rate of 3,962 per 100K people, a statistic which includes drug crimes. With those facts, as well as a poverty level of 16.1%, Fort Madison makes the number fifteen spot.
14. Council Bluffs
High in the convenient extras, including jobs and employment, and a low overall cost of living, Council Bluffs appears to be a great choice. But with a population of 62,478 it is a city by Iowa’s standards, and this can mean trouble.
Crime is a serious problem here, with a yearly average of 3,867 crimes committed per year, which comes out to 6,182.4 per 100K individuals; this means the city has a crime rate that is 140.71% above the national average. This is definitely information to consider before making any kind of leap that takes you to Council Bluffs.
13. Red Oak
Located 45 minutes southeast of Council Bluffs we have Red Oak, a small town that is seemingly quaint and quite perfect when it comes to Iowa life. The truth of the matter is that this small town, population 5,434, has been voted number six on a list of the worst overall places to live.
This is likely based on a combination of the high crime rate (64.71% above the national average), poor safety and housing ratings, and an overall lack of available employment. The cost of living is good, however, if you can find a livable home, but that wasn’t enough to keep it from making number thirteen on our list.
12. Mason City
Some parts of this city, with its population of 27,309, are considered wonderful spots to live and raise a family, and the education ratings here are high when compared to other comparable locations (it scored an eight out of ten points).
But the crime rate is nearly 25% above the national average, housing is scarce, and jobs could be better. It’s the crime that brings Mason City to number twelve for us, which is so high that even the low cost of living can’t distract potential residents from the facts. Hopefully, this once-nice city can get a grip on things before it’s too late.
This town, which was once well-known for a restaurant serving loose meat sandwiches that was owned by Roseanne and Tom Arnold (which was actually 20 miles away in Eldon), is now considered one of the very worst places to live in Iowa for a variety of reasons.
According to many sources, the public school system there is shambles, and the local economy is shot. People can find very affordable houses in Ottumwa, but unfortunately, they will find themselves commuting, because the town has one of the very highest unemployment rates in the whole country. Unfortunate for another booming town that lost its momentum.
10. Sioux City
With a population of just under 82,500, Sioux City is admittedly just right size to give people the feeling they’re at home while providing all the amenities one would expect from a city.
With a low cost of living and high ratings when it comes to diversity and ease of commute, it is an area that people obviously gravitate toward. But there are many problem areas when it comes to this Iowa locale.
The city rates fairly low in both education and housing, but when it comes to the crime element, it really isn’t an appealing record we are looking at. 4,731 crimes are committed per 100K people per year, giving Sioux City a crime rate that is 84.2% higher than the national average. All in all, that particular number is enough to keep many away.
Here is an Iowa town with some pretty positive points about it. Maquoketa is mostly famous for its caves, which are visited by hundreds of people every season, and there was a time, very recently, in fact, that the town was considered, and chosen, by many to be their home.
Today the cost of living is low, but housing is sadly lacking, which makes it much less favorable for newcomers. The crime rate is just less than 25% higher than the average, but for a town with a population of just over 6,000, this is a deal breaker.
The bottom line? Maquoketa is generally a town living at poverty level, which is a terrible catch-22 for those who reside there, or even think about it.
Here’s one you might not expect from the name: Fairfield, Iowa, which almost sounds like the setting of a 50s sitcom. With that being said, don’t judge a book by the title.
Statistically speaking, residents of this town have a 1 in 646 chance of being a victim of violent crime, putting it at more than 33% above average. Another low point is the availability of employment, as well as housing and the cost of local living.
The education system rates high, as does commutability, but low safety scores hardly make up for it, which puts Fairfield at number eight on the list today.
When conducting the research for this piece, Centerville was mentioned on nearly every list available, without much explanation as to why. According to Bestplaces.net, the town of Centerville, population 5,487, has never had the honor of making one of their ‘Best Places’ lists.
It doesn’t say why, so we checked out the town for ourselves. It does have a low cost of living, but it is hardly diversified, has an atrociously low housing availability, and a safety rating that is nearly as low.
What about crime? Well, for a town of this size, it’s insanely high with 308 crimes per year, which amounts to 5,793.8 per 100,000 people. The crime rate is 125.58% above average, making it a place you should possibly shy away from.
According to Niche.com, a former resident of the town said ‘Burlington is not a horrible place to live, just not where I would want to raise my children’; another states that the safety there is the worst.
When looking at the numbers, I think we can see what is going on. Jobs are rated lower than they could be, as is housing, but the town’s safety rating is embarrassingly low.
Sure, the cost of living is lower, but when it comes to crime, they sit at 88.14% above the national average, which is inconceivable. While some say this is a beautiful, quaint town, others go so far as to warn others to stay away at all cost, and for seemingly good reasons.
Located along the Mississippi River, Dubuque has great sites and awesome history, not to mention the fact that it is a great looking town. But people who have lived there state that it doesn’t have many family-oriented activities, and above all else it is said the homes are overpriced and it has become a ‘mini-Chicago’ compared to what it used to be.
With 58,340 people living in Dubuque, it is considered affordable overall, and has a fair rate of job availability and/or job commute. But its safety rating is the lowest of all; with 1,772 crimes committed on the average per year.
This puts the crime rate in Dubuque at 17.59% above average. It is the rapid decline of the town and the rapidly increasing cost of living, combined with the crime rate (mostly due to drugs), that makes Dubuque one of the worst places to live in Iowa.
We will be blunt when it comes to Clinton: It has been ranked as THE worst place to live in Iowa more than once, and on more than one list. The truth is, Clinton was once a town worth boasting about, on a fair level, but over the years the decline has been rapid and obvious.
All areas rated run on the low side, and are surprisingly low, considering surrounding towns and cities, but there is a fair number of jobs there. Otherwise, people who move to Clinton must deal with one of the lowest safety scores on our list, and a crime rate that is 136.37% above the norm.
There has also been a bit of bashing in regard to education there, so be sure to take some time considering your options before you jump and move to Clinton.
3. Des Moines
With an unemployment rate of 8.1% and a crime rate that is higher than ever, Des Moines is in a bit of trouble. Iowa’s largest city carries a population of 215,932, and has a crime rate that is 97.92% higher, but the cost of living is surprisingly fair for a city of this size.
While it has much diversity and amenities, the safety level there is at a three out of ten. According to Road Snacks, residents of Des Moines are underemployed and underpaid, and they have a higher crime level to deal with…and unfortunately it just keeps getting worse. Hopefully the state’s capital will find its way out of the hole it is in.
Davenport earns the number two spot on our list due to the high level of crime and drug activity that abound there. It is also one of the most dangerous cities, with 1 in 36 people finding themselves the victim of violence in a year that sees an average of 5,999 crimes per year (which comes to 5,820 per 100K people), for an average crime rate that is 126.63% higher than the rest of the nation.
Cost of living isn’t too shabby, and there are many jobs to be found. Education is high, but housing is a bit average. Safety is as low as can be expect, with a rating of 3 out of 10, which is likely attributed to the crime rate. Until things change in Davenport, if they ever do, this is simply one of the worst Iowa cities you can choose to try to reside and raise your family.
We hate to say it, but Keokuk was actually voted THE worst place to live in Iowa for the year 2020. Why? For starters, Keokuk has one of the highest crime rates in the state at 179.93% above the average.
According to statistics, residents of the town of just over 10K have a 1 in 115 chance of being murdered, raped, or otherwise attacked.
These numbers bring us to an obvious conclusion that begged to be shared: Keokuk is the worst place in Iowa to establish residency, and therefore makes the number one spot on our list.
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Written by Liz Flynn
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