With world-famous beaches, mountains, and cities, California is seen as a paradise by many. But the Golden State has its share of less desirable areas too. If you’re considering a move to California, you’ll want to avoid these counties that consistently rank as the worst places to live.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Based on crime, unemployment, housing costs, and education, the worst counties in California are clustered in the Central Valley like Fresno, Kern, and San Joaquin counties.

How California’s Counties Rank

Crime Rates and Public Safety

When it comes to safety, some counties in California fare better than others. According to the latest statistics from the California Department of Justice, there are counties with lower crime rates than the state average of 4,445 crimes per 100,000 residents.

For example, Marin County and San Mateo County consistently rank among the safest counties in California, with crime rates well below the state average. On the other hand, counties like Los Angeles and San Bernardino have higher crime rates, making them less desirable in terms of public safety.

It’s essential to consider crime rates when deciding where to live in California.

Unemployment and Poverty

Unemployment rates and poverty levels play a significant role in determining the livability of a county. Counties with high unemployment rates and low job opportunities can be challenging for residents.

For instance, Imperial County has consistently had one of the highest unemployment rates in California, which can lead to economic instability. Additionally, counties like Lake County have higher poverty rates compared to the state average.

On the other hand, counties like San Francisco and Santa Clara have lower unemployment rates and higher job opportunities, making them more desirable places to live in terms of employment and financial stability.

Housing Costs and Availability

California is notorious for its high housing costs, and some counties are more affordable than others. For instance, counties like San Francisco and Santa Clara have some of the highest housing costs in the state, making it difficult for many residents to afford suitable housing.

On the other hand, counties like Kings County and Kern County have lower housing costs, providing more affordable options for individuals and families. It’s crucial to consider housing affordability and availability when choosing where to live in California, as it can significantly impact one’s quality of life.

Access to Amenities

Access to amenities such as healthcare facilities, schools, parks, and cultural attractions is an essential factor to consider when evaluating the livability of a county. Counties like San Diego and Orange County have a wide range of amenities, including top-rated hospitals, renowned universities, beautiful parks, and vibrant cultural scenes.

On the other hand, some rural counties may have limited access to amenities, which can affect the overall quality of life for residents. It’s important to assess the availability of amenities that are important to you when deciding where to live in California.

California’s Least Livable Counties

Fresno County

Fresno County, located in the central part of California, is known for its high crime rates and poverty levels. According to the FBI’s crime statistics, Fresno County has consistently ranked among the top counties in the state for violent crimes such as homicide, assault, and robbery.

The county also struggles with issues like unemployment and lack of affordable housing, making it a challenging place to live for many residents.

Furthermore, Fresno County has faced challenges in terms of education. According to the California Department of Education, the county has a high dropout rate and low graduation rates compared to other counties in the state.

This can have long-term consequences for the county’s residents, impacting their opportunities for higher education and future employment prospects.

Kern County

Kern County, located in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley, faces its own set of challenges. One of the major concerns in Kern County is air pollution. According to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report, Bakersfield, the county seat, has consistently ranked among the most polluted cities in the United States.

This poses significant health risks for residents, especially those with respiratory conditions.

Kern County also struggles with high rates of poverty and unemployment. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate in Kern County is higher than the state average, with many residents struggling to make ends meet.

The county also has limited access to healthcare facilities, which can further exacerbate health issues for its residents.

San Joaquin County

San Joaquin County, located in the Central Valley, faces a range of issues that impact livability. One of the major concerns in the county is the high cost of living. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator, the cost of living in San Joaquin County is significantly higher than the national average, making it difficult for many residents to afford basic necessities.

Another challenge in San Joaquin County is the lack of affordable housing. According to a report by the California Housing Partnership, the county has a significant shortage of affordable rental units, resulting in many residents struggling to find suitable and affordable housing options.

Tulare County

Tulare County, located in the Central Valley, faces several challenges that impact its livability. One of the major concerns in the county is water scarcity. The county has been grappling with a long-standing drought, resulting in limited water resources for residents and agricultural activities, which are vital to the county’s economy.

Tulare County also has high poverty rates, with a significant portion of its population living below the poverty line. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county’s poverty rate is higher than the state average, highlighting the financial struggles faced by many residents.

It’s important to note that while these counties face significant challenges, they also have their own unique strengths and attractions. Each county has its own history, cultural heritage, and natural beauty that can make it a worthwhile place to visit or live in despite the difficulties.

It’s always important to consider a variety of factors when evaluating the livability of a county.

Why These Counties Struggle

There are several reasons why these counties in California are facing significant challenges. From the opioid epidemic to the struggles of agricultural economies and the lack of infrastructure, these factors have contributed to their difficulties.

Opioid Epidemic

One of the main issues affecting these counties is the opioid epidemic. The misuse and addiction to opioids have had a devastating impact on communities across the state. According to the California Department of Public Health, opioid-related deaths have been on the rise in recent years.

The lack of access to proper healthcare, counseling services, and treatment facilities in these counties exacerbates the problem, making it harder for individuals affected by addiction to receive the help they need.

Agricultural Economies

Many of these struggling counties rely heavily on agriculture as their primary source of income. However, the agricultural industry has faced numerous challenges in recent years. Factors such as droughts, wildfires, and changing market demands have impacted the profitability of farms and ranches in these areas.

This has led to a decrease in job opportunities and economic instability, making it difficult for residents to make ends meet.

Lack of Infrastructure

Another significant issue faced by these counties is the lack of infrastructure. Infrastructure plays a crucial role in the development and prosperity of any region. However, many of these counties lack proper transportation systems, healthcare facilities, and educational institutions.

This lack of infrastructure hinders economic growth and limits access to essential services for residents. Without adequate infrastructure, it becomes challenging for businesses to thrive, job opportunities to emerge, and for residents to enjoy a good quality of life.

Addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive approach that involves investment in healthcare, addiction treatment, agricultural support, and infrastructure development. By implementing initiatives to tackle the opioid epidemic, supporting agricultural communities, and improving infrastructure, these struggling counties can start to overcome their difficulties and create a better future for their residents.

For more information on the opioid epidemic in California, visit California Department of Public Health.

Alternatives to Consider

While some counties in California may not be the ideal place to live, there are several alternatives that offer a better quality of life. Here are three areas worth considering:

Sacramento Area

The Sacramento area, which includes Sacramento County, offers a great alternative for those looking to escape the drawbacks of the worst counties. With its vibrant urban scene, beautiful parks, and affordable housing options, Sacramento provides a great balance between city amenities and a more relaxed lifestyle.

Additionally, the region boasts a strong job market, making it an attractive option for career opportunities. Visit cityofsacramento.org for more information.


Despite being classified as one of the worst counties, Bakersfield in Kern County has its own unique charm. The city is known for its warm and sunny weather, making it an ideal destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

Bakersfield also offers a lower cost of living compared to other parts of California, making it an appealing choice for those on a budget. While it may not have the same level of amenities as larger cities, Bakersfield still offers a range of recreational activities and a strong sense of community.

Learn more about Bakersfield at bakersfieldcity.us.

Central Coast

If you’re looking for a coastal alternative, the Central Coast region is worth considering. Counties such as Monterey and San Luis Obispo offer stunning natural beauty, including picturesque coastlines and scenic mountain ranges.

The area is known for its mild climate, making it a desirable location for outdoor activities and a relaxed lifestyle. The Central Coast also boasts a thriving wine industry, with numerous vineyards and wineries to explore. Discover more about the Central Coast at centralcoastca.com.

These alternatives provide a glimpse into the diverse options available in California. While some counties may have their downsides, there are plenty of other areas that offer a better quality of life and unique attributes.

It’s important to explore different regions and consider your own personal preferences before making a decision on where to live. Remember, what may be the worst county for one person might be the perfect fit for another!


Based on factors like crime, unemployment, housing, and amenities, California’s Central Valley has some of the least livable counties in the state. Fresno, Kern, San Joaquin and Tulare counties face major challenges with drug abuse, stalled economies, and lack of services.

While California’s coast and major metros lead in quality of life, even inland areas like Sacramento and Bakersfield offer more opportunities than the Central Valley. Weigh the pros and cons if a move to one of California’s worst counties is on your horizon.

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