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The 20 Worst Places To Live In Iowa

Iowa is known as the “land where the tall corn grows,” and yes, it’s corn that most people think of when they hear the word Iowa. Are you thinking about potatoes instead? No, no, that’s Idaho…a common mistake. Corny jokes aside, Iowa is actually a beautiful place to live overall.

The state has gorgeous rolling hills, clean neighborhoods, and great schools. It’s also known as a pretty safe place to live, as most of it is fairly rural. As the 29th state admitted to the United States, it is bordered by the Missouri River, the Big Sioux River, and the Mississippi River.

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 for many years running. So, why don’t more people relocate to Iowa every year?

There are Problems Here

Well, nothing is perfect, and with all those positive things being said about the state, Iowa has locations that are less than savory. It’s not alone in that fact, and Iowa’s bigger towns and cities see their share of lowness and hardship. There are even places with high crime and/or riddled with drugs.

These are the places that anyone considering a relocation to this midwestern state should avoid. They might not be as dangerous as the worst places in the country, but they have their problems. Whether it’s high crime, expensive homes, or poor schools, these areas struggle.

So, in an effort to make things a bit easier for you, 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 20 to 1.

Unfortunately, the number one city isn’t exactly winning a great place and is the worst place to live in Iowa. Check out the following to learn a bit about a state that is being literally dragged into our modern times, no matter how hard they have fought to maintain its wholesome appeal.

Our Methodology

Each of our articles is carefully researched to provide the most accurate and detailed information possible. We focus heavily on quality and research and want to make sure anyone moving knows the worst places to live in Iowa. Just a few steps that we follow during our writing process include how we:

  1. Examine our previous list for accuracy
  2. Do deeper research into the problems affecting these cities
  3. Compile information and present it in a streamlined manner
  4. Carefully update the list and rearrange the cities, if necessary
  5. Continually upgrade the list to ensure it’s as accurate as possible every year

The 20 Worst Places to Live in Iowa

The worst cities in Iowa might seem rather genial compared to dangerous areas like Los Angeles and New York City. However, they’re problematic enough to avoid if you plan on relocating to the area. Read through these listings to make sure your family is prepared for these potential issues.

Cedar Rapids

20. Cedar Rapids

First, we will take a look at some of this city’s good points. Cedar Rapids is a fairly big city, with a variety of neighborhoods from which to choose and many jobs for the person looking to be employed outside the home. It’s a common destination for many people moving to the region.

In fact, 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. It’s now one of the worst cities in Iowa and is safer than just 10% of the nation, with schools that are shaky at best.

Violence, drug activity, and a general lack of the citizens' respect have resulted in a downfall, as did the flood of 2008, which managed to wreak havoc on homes and businesses all over the place. Many of these facilities 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. Furthermore, its cost of living is higher than the state average, though home prices are $10,000 lower as of 2024.

Marshalltown

19. Marshalltown

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. It actually has a higher crime rate per capita than 81% of the country.

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. The cost of living is decent but not a whole lot lower than the state average. Even worse, the schools rank as low as 1-2 on a 10-point scale! All of these reasons manage to bring this city in at 19.

Clarinda

18. Clarinda

This small Iowa town is home to a prison, which is causing many to shy away from the area. 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. The fact that it’s still safer than 44% of the nation is astonishing and shows how bad things have gotten.

Well, what about the schools? These have tragic ratings of just 4 and 6 out of 10, making it a poor place to raise your children. It’s also not particularly walkable, which is strange for such a small city. Simply put, Clarinda is the kind of place you drive through on your way to somewhere safer.

Oelwein

17. Oelwein

This is a smaller town most haven’t heard of yet in their lives. Many might even find this beautiful native town name a little hard 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 with honesty.

Sure, it’s ranked safer than 32% of all American neighborhoods. But that’s on a per capita basis. The fact that this tiny area isn’t safer than more cities makes it a questionable place to live. Furthermore, its schools aren’t great. Furthermore, job growth is negative in this area.

So while the hometown feel and affordability are outstanding and feature large, beautiful homes going for next to nothing, 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. At least it’s very walkable: that’s something positive, huh?

Waterloo

16. Waterloo

Considered something of a twin city to the neighboring Cedar Falls, Waterloo has an individual population of just over 68,000. That said, Waterloo has a much worse reputation than Cedar Rapids. That’s why it’s higher on this list than its larger and more popular sister city.

Good points first, the cost of living in this Iowa city is 75.7, which is far below the 100 USA average and the 80.1 state average. There’s also positive job growth in the city, which is surprising considering its relatively small size. That’s about it for good news, however.

The city is safer than just 10% of all neighborhoods in the country, which is shocking considering it’s going up against some pretty big cities. We also have to mention the fact that the city has a dirty look and feel. If you have your heart set on Blackhawk County, Cedar Falls is definitely a better option.

Fort Madison

15. Fort Madison

As one of the worst cities in Iowa, Fort Madison has a strange history. It houses a maximum security men’s penitentiary. However, that’s not the reason Fort Madison made our list. Let’s start by saying that the reality of the situation is that amenities and commute ratings are high.

Furthermore, the cost of living there is below the national average, and median home prices are just one-third the national average. That said, every other scorable point for this place is low when compared to other similar Iowa towns, making this one of the worst places to live in Iowa.

It has a population of just over 10,000 and is safer than just 8% of the nation. That’s a staggering fact and is often centered on violent and property crimes. There’s a 3.4% chance that you’ll be a victim of crimes in this city, which is a very high level for such a small city.

Pair that with atrocious schools (the highest is ranked 4 out of 10), and Fort Madison is easily one of the worst cities in Iowa. Interestingly, though, it’s considered very walkable. That doesn’t mean it’s worth your time and energy to relocate here, though.

Council Bluffs

14. Council Bluffs

At first glance, Council Bluffs appears to be a great choice for relocation. As a city with a population of over 62,000, it’s a relatively large area for the state. However, problems like low walkability scores are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this frustratingly unsafe area.

Crime is a serious problem here for a city of such a size. It’s currently safer than just 6% of the rest of the nation and has 224 violent crimes every year and 2,127 property crimes. There’s a 3.7% chance that you’ll be a victim of crime just living here, which is unacceptable for such a small area.

What about the schools? Frankly, it’s best not to talk about them. A couple of well-ranked elementary schools top the list, with most falling between putrid 1-5 rankings on a 10-point scale. All that with a cost of living that’s higher than the state average. Run, don’t walk, from Council Bluffs!

Red Oak

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.

While the city is technically safer than 31% of the rest of the nation, it’s surprising that it’s not even safer. After all, it’s practically a village. Why isn’t it safer than far more of the nation? Well, high poverty and poor school systems seem to create a high level of trouble in the area.

The cost of living is good, however, and well below the state average. That’s pretty nice, as is the city’s high walkability. That said, job growth in the region has been negative for many years now. The highest paying jobs are decent ($117,000), but the lowest paying is insulting to consider ($11,000).

Even worse, the city’s climate isn’t all that great, with six months of snow out of the year. While that’s common in Iowa, it’s still a bit of a kick in the shins in such a questionable city.

Mason City

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 eight out of ten points). But why is it on this list? Let’s take a look.

First, the crime rate isn't great for such a small area. It’s safer than just 9% of the nation, which is absurd considering it’s not even 30,000 people. While most crimes are property-related, there are more violent crimes here than expected.

Even worse, the schools are crap, and jobs could be better. There are actually jobs in this city that pay as low as $6,700 a year. That’s not a typo. Furthermore, the average income is $32,000 compared to the nation’s $37,000, though the unemployment rate here is surprisingly lower than the nation.

Ottumwa

11. Ottumwa

This town, which was once well-known for a restaurant serving loose meat sandwiches that were 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.

As one of the worst cities in Iowa, its crime rate is worse than 95% of the nation. That’s staggering, considering that’s not exactly a huge town. According to many sources, the public school system there is shambles, and the local economy is shot. Jobs range from $13,000 to $87,000 a year: not great.

People can find very affordable houses in Ottumwa, but unfortunately, they will find themselves commuting because the town has one of the highest unemployment rates in the whole country. Unfortunately, another booming town has lost its momentum and stalled out.

For those reasons, the cost of living is almost 10 points lower than the state average and a full 30 lower than the national average. Housing is often as low as under $100,000, which is increasingly rare in the nation. That doesn’t mean you should tolerate this town for a second.

Sioux City

10. Sioux City

With a population of just under 82,500, Sioux City is admittedly just the right size to give people the feeling they’re at home while providing all the amenities one would expect from a city. It has a low cost of living and high ratings when it comes to diversity and ease of commute.

That makes it an area that people obviously gravitate toward. But there are many problem areas when it comes to this Iowa locale. After all, looks can be deceiving, and the beautiful surface presented by Sioux City crumbles to reveal one of the worst places to live in Iowa.

The city scores low in education, with one great elementary school surrounded by a lot of sub-par offerings. True, the city will see positive job growth over the next 10 years, but at a rate that’s far lower than the US average (22.6% compared to 33.5%).

Where the city really struggles is its crime. Perhaps that’s not surprising for one of the largest cities in the state. However, it’s shocking just how bad things are here. It’s safer than just 7% of the nation and experiences nearly 500 violent crimes a year and over 2,500 property crimes.

Maquoketa

9. Maquoketa

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, when the town was considered and chosen by many to be their home. After all, it’s decently walkable.

The cost of living is lower than the state average by nearly 10 points. However, housing is sadly lacking, which makes it much less favorable for newcomers. While the city is safer than 12% of the nation, that’s a shockingly low level for a town of its size and general feel.

The bottom line? Maquoketa is generally a town living at the poverty level, which is a terrible catch-22 for those who reside there or even think about it. Furthermore, the schools are beyond bad, so please don’t take your children here if you love them.

Fairfield

8. Fairfield

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 its title.

Statistically speaking, residents of this town are 33% safer than the rest of the nation. On the surface, that makes it seem like an okay place to live. However, it’s simply far too high for such a small town. It’s like moving to a farm and still being more dangerous than 66% of the country.

The education system rates high, as does commutability, but low safety scores hardly make up for it. We do want to point out a decent cost of living expense and lower housing costs, as well as relatively decent walkability ratings. Does that make it worth relocating here and dealing with crime?

No, because you’re just not going to make any money. The average earnings in this city are $32,000, with lows that fall into the $10,000 range. Sure, if you can get a job as a lawyer, you’ll make good money here, but you’ll still have to deal with crime and other issues.

Centerville

7. Centerville

When conducting the research for this piece, Centerville was mentioned on nearly every list of the worst places to live in Iowa. This sub-6,000-person town has a crime rate that’s higher than 80% of the nation. That’s ridiculous, so we did a little more research to find out what else made this a bad town.

While it does have a low cost of living that is nearly 10 points lower than the state, its diversity ratings are very low. Furthermore, it has an atrociously low housing availability and a safety rating that is nearly as low. Jobs here pay between $11,000 to $68,000, which is frankly tragic.

Sure, houses cost just about $77,000 in the area, which is almost unheard of in other areas, and the unemployment rate is relatively strong. But the commute time is over 20 minutes, which is silly for such a small city. The schools are also beyond bad, almost embarrassingly putrid.

Burlington

6. Burlington

One former resident of the town said, “Burlington is not a horrible place to live, just not where I would want to raise my children,” while another stated that the safety there is the worst. After all, this fairly small town is more dangerous than 94% of America, which hardly seems to make sense.

When looking at the numbers, there are even more problems here. Jobs are rated lower than they could be, with salaries ranging from $12,000 to $76,000. Sure, the sub-15 minute commute time is decent, but you’ll hardly be making any money and may struggle to find child care.

Home prices are also getting higher and higher, with a cost of $108,000. Good: you get to live in an unsafe area and pay over six figures? Perhaps that’s why 29% of the population rents. However, there are only 2% of homes available to rent, making it nearly impossible to relocate here.

As if you’d want to live here! The schools are even worse, with many ranked as low as 1 and 2 out of 10 on Great Schools. Do yourself a favor: live somewhere else!

Dubuque

5. Dubuque

We’re really getting into the worst cities in Iowa now! While Dubuque is located along the Mississippi River and has beautiful sites and an awesome history, it doesn’t have many family-oriented activities. Even worse, it is said the homes are overpriced, with prices as high as $208,400. For a city of such a size, that's a ridiculously high and unfair home price.

In fact, some call this 58,340-person town a mini-Chicago due to its housing. That said, it does have an affordable overall cost of living. It also has a fair rate of job availability and commute. So why is Dubuque so low on our list? Its safety rating is very low, which makes it a questionable place to live.

Crime, specifically. Sure, it’s safer than 16% of the nation, but is that great? No, especially when nearly 300 violent crimes are committed in this city every year. It’s truly one of the worst cities in Iowa. It's amazing that such a small city could be so violent, but it's a problem that seems to be spreading throughout much of Iowa.

Furthermore, its schools aren’t all that hot. Yeah, there are a few good elementary and middle schools here. But a look at the high schools reveals a string of very poor options. Your child deserves better, so make sure you keep them away from Dubuque’s public schools. There might be some private options but they aren't worth your time if the city itself is so questionable.

Clinton

4. Clinton

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. Sadly, this means that Clinton has jumped even higher on our list than in previous years.

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. That said, job growth has been low; the average income is below $30,000, and the lowest-earning job is a measly $12,000 a year. Are you ready to live in poverty while spending a lot of money to live in a city? Then move here!

Furthermore, people who move to Clinton must deal with one of the lowest safety scores on our list. Put simply, it’s safer than just 6% of the nation, which is ridiculous considering its small size. There are mostly property crimes, but nearly 150 violent crimes every year as well. That's a serious problem because it could result in serious injury or even death.

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. Even more frustrating, its walkability, transit, and bike scores are low: is there nothing Clinton can’t do wrong? You need to get your family and move away from this area if you live here and avoid it whenever possible.

Des Moines

3. Des Moines

With an unemployment rate of 5.9% and a crime rate that is higher than ever, Des Moines is in a bit of trouble. Iowa’s largest city has a population of 215,932 and a crime rate that makes it more dangerous than 94% of the country. Sure, it’s a big city, but that doesn’t make that crime acceptable. Any amount of violent crime is a problem that has to be managed.

Frankly, most residents of Des Moines are underemployed and underpaid, and they have a higher crime level to deal with every year. Sure, the highest-paying jobs make nearly $100,000 a year. But are you a lawyer? If not, expect an average salary of $31,000 and a low of $14,000. You're not going to be living in the lap of luxury if you move to this city.

As if that isn’t bad enough, the city is about as walkable as the moon and has low transit and bike scores. That gives it a high pollution rating in many neighborhoods. The schools? A few great ones, mostly balanced by absolute crap. Hopefully, the state’s capital will find its way out of the hole it is in right now. It's odd that the state can't rebuild itself better.

Davenport

2. Davenport

Davenport earns the number two spot on our list of the worst places to live in Iowa due to the high level of crime and drug activity that abound throughout the area. Frankly put, it is also one of the most dangerous cities in the state and the kind of place that your family warns you about as a child, making in one of the worst cities in Iowa.

Though it’s not the most dangerous city in the nation and wouldn’t even make a top 20 list, it is more dangerous than 96% of the country. It has 670 violent crimes a year and 3,600 property crimes. That means you’re over 4% likely to get impacted by crime if you live in this city: a prodigious rate.

What truly makes this one of the worst cities is the fact that its cost of living is higher than the state average! Sure, it’s lower than the nation in general, but the fact that you have to spend good money to live in a dangerous city makes it an even worse proposition than you likely anticipated.

Education is high, it’s true, but housing is a bit average. 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 in and raise your family. It doesn’t even bother to have a very good walkability rate: talk about frustrating.

Keokuk

1. Keokuk

We hate to say it, but Keokuk is easily one of the worst places to live in Iowa. We’ve done our research, and even with all the larger cities competing pretty heavily for its position, it tops our list of the worst cities in Iowa. Why? For starters, Keokuk has one of the highest crime rates in the state.

Sure, it has only 87 violent crimes and 281 property crimes. But it’s a tiny town, and these rates make it more dangerous than all but 6% of the nation. 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 begs to be shared: Keokuk is the worst place in Iowa to establish residency and, therefore, makes the number one spot on our list. But let’s look a little deeper at a few other statistics to see if there’s anything good here.

How are the schools? Beyond one elementary school, some of the worst in the state. The cost of living? It’s low but not incredibly affordable. Home prices? Just $81,000 with low chances of increase. Job opportunities? Limited to jobs between $12,000 to $73,000 with an average of $25,000.

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Liz Flynn

Written by Liz Flynn

Liz Flynn has worked as a full-time writer since 2010 after leaving a career in education. She finds almost all topics she writes about interesting, but her favorite subjects are travel and food. Liz loves the process of researching information, learning new things, and putting into words what others who share her interests might like to read. Although she spends most of her time writing, she also enjoys spending time with her husband and four children, watching films, cooking, dining out, reading, motorsports, gaming, and walking along the beach next to her house with her dog.

Read more posts by Liz Flynn

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