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US cities where it's hardest to get by

By Lauren Sherman, Forbes
April 18, 2009 19:18 IST
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There are few smiles among those who live in Providence, R.I., these days.

In February, the metro area reported an 11.6 per cent unemployment rate, one of the highest in the country. Construction--one of Providence's major industries--is down; traditional manufacturing has been struggling for years. Like many across the country, few are spending at retailers. And while the area's median income is $54,064--about $4,000 higher than the national average--its cost of living index is steep, 22 points above the national average of 100.

All this means it's hard to catch a break in Providence. While not as dire, other metro areas across the country are facing similar situations. It costs more than average to live in Sacramento and Portland. The New York metro area's got an 8.2 per cent unemployment rate; in San Jose, home to Silicon Valley, it's 10 per cent.

"The (national) unemployment rate is going to continue to increase," says Dean Baker, PhD, an economist and co-director for the Center for Economic and Policy Research based in Washington, DC. "The most optimistic scenario by the end of the year is that the country is no longer losing jobs."

To determine which of the 50 largest US metropolitan statistical areas-- geographic entities defined by the US Office of Management and Budget for use by federal agencies in collecting, tabulating and publishing federal statistics--squeeze residents most, we measured cost of living, unemployment rate and median income in each.

The current cost of living for each area was provided by the Council for Community and Economic Research, an Arlington, Va.-based organization that works with local government and research groups to determine the costs of common goods across the country.

The average cost of living indicator is 100; cities with higher scores are considered more expensive. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics provided February 2009 unemployment rates. Median 2008 income was provided by the US Census Bureau.

Los Angeles, Riverside, Calif., Tampa, Fla., and Buffalo, NY, round out the top five cities where it's hardest to get by. While Riverside and Tampa are foreclosure hotspots, and Buffalo is a fading Rust Belt city, Los Angeles is a somewhat surprising chart topper.

The median income in Los Angeles is a bit higher than the national average at $56,680, the cost of living is very high--48 points above the national average--and unemployment is 10.2 per cent. Los Angeles County lost 41,900 jobs in 2008, and it's projected to lose 89,000 more in 2009, according to local officials. Most of the job losses were in retail, manufacturing and construction, just as they were in Providence.

Detroit, hard hit by job loss and foreclosure, ranks eighth. Though its got a 13.6% unemployment rate, the highest on our list, the metro area's cost of living is at the national average, and the median income is about $3,000 higher than the national average.

There's no doubt that for the residents of these areas, it feels as though there's very little good on the horizon. But there is: Cost of living is expected to decrease in many cities where prices were highly inflated during the economic boom. New York, for example, has a high unemployment rate of 8.2 per cent.

It also has the highest cost of living in the country, 120 points above the national average. While the job losses on Wall Street have helped crater the economy, they will likely spur lower home prices in the long term and temporarily lower rental prices.

"Even in places in New York, you're going to see a big fall in house prices," says Baker. "And they're going to stay down."

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Lauren Sherman, Forbes
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