The term “Third World Country” is today used to describe a nation in a low state of development, and it is often applied with a rather derogative bent. However, when French historian Alfred Sauvy coined term back in the 1950s, it had less to do with a country’s economic stability and degree of modernization and more to do with its political alignment. Those countries considered to be in the Third World were any not directly aligned with either the NATO nations or their foils in the Communist Bloc. (NATO countries, including the United States, most of Europe, Japan, and others were referred to as the First World, while the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, China, and a handful of other communist countries were called Second World).
Truth be told, we here in America should use the term Third World with more than a single grain of salt, and not only because it’s a disrespectful and pejorative assessment. In fact, many American neighborhoods and even some entire towns and cities in the United States look about the same as what one likely pictures when thinking of the Third World. Some of these broken-down towns are rural and remote, left to wallow far from other population centers, while others are tucked into the corner of major metropolitan centers. Some ostensibly Third World neighborhoods in America were created by the acute ravages of a storm, fire, or riot, while others are the product of the more glacial but no less resistible march of human history.
15. Camden, New Jersey
In 2012, Camden, New Jersey had the dubious distinction of boasting the highest crime rate of any American city. With more than 2,560 violent crimes per 100,0000 residents, the crime rate there was more than six times higher than the national average. The city has also long been plagued by pollution issues, these having been primarily caused by Camden’s high volume of garbage incineration and by a large wastewater treatment facility. Both the crime rate and pollution have driven property values down for many decades now, and anyone looking around many of Camden’s rundown neighborhoods can clearly see the tangible effects of these many deleterious factors. Or, in other words, Camden, New Jersey looks like a city from a Third World nation.
14. East St. Louis, Illinois
OK, so first to clear up the confusion: yes, we’re talking about a location in Illinois, not Missouri. East St. Louis, IL, to be specific, and the city center of East St. Louis to be even more precise. In this concentrated hotbed of blight and criminal activity, an average of 80 people in 1,000 will be involved in violence in a given year, a rate that outpaces Camden, NJ by a factor of three. Hardly a single day goes by without open gunfire in East St. Louis, and the situation is only made worse by the ever-shrinking presence of police, paramedics, and fire fighting professionals. The first responders most of us can count on to help keep us safe are, by in large, pulling out of the area and leaving it to its own dark devices.
13. New Orleans, Louisiana
These days you visit New Orleans’s famous Bourbon Street, whether during Mardi Gras or really any time of year, you can have just as much fun as ever. That’s because this tourist-laden center of the Big Easy has been fully restored and refurbished following the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Despite the fact that that deadly storm twisted its way across the Gulf Coast more than a decade ago, many neighborhoods of NOLA are still in a state of ruin many Americans would hardly believe possible in the prosperous US of A. But take a short drive or a long walk in many directions leading away from the bustling center of town and indeed you will find countless rotting, rundown homes. Here’s the kicker: many of these residences are not abandoned.
12. Memphis, Tennessee
Parts of Memphis are lovely, storied, and perfectly safe. Other areas are about as inviting as a Third World slum with an active gun battle taking place. And if you visit the 38106 zip code of Memphis, this is about the level of civilization you’ll find right now, unfortunately. Long plagued by violence and drug issues, the area shows no signs of imminent recovery. This is largely true because the cost of living is so low in this area of Memphis. Renting a home here costs an average of $700 a month, while a house in the area can usually be bought outright for well under $50,000. The cheap housing has led to increased vagrancy and crime.
11. South Los Angeles
The area today known as South Los Angeles was called South Central for many years before city officials decided to rebrand the region in an attempt to rehabilitate its image and, ideally, its essence. Neither the optics nor the reality changes much, though. While parts of South LA have grown safer and more pleasant over the years, such as the streets around the University of Southern California, much of the region remains the same as it has been for years: a dangerous ghetto plagued by crime, gang activity, drugs, violence, and with little hope for improvement in the offing. The fifty-plus square mile region is home to more than a quarter million people today. Interestingly, 15 years ago as many as twice that number called the area home.
10. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania may still be home to the NFL’s Steelers, the MLB’s Pirates, and the NHL’s Penguins, but many areas of this once prosperous city are not home to many residents. Many neighborhoods in Pittsburgh are in fact experiencing a vacancy rate of higher than fifty perfect (meaning more than one out of every two homes is unoccupied, to be clear), and that has led to increased blight and higher incidents of criminal activity. Pittsburg was a thriving town for much of the 20th Century, but as industry has left the area (steel production has been much diminished and most mills and factories have closed), so too have the good times. Walk around much of the town today and you’ll see neighborhoods built on steel, as it were, now crumbling to dust.
9. Orlando, Florida
When most people think of Orlando, Florida, they think of Disney World, the so-called happiest place on earth, and certainly a safe place for families to come and enjoy themselves. Well, unfortunately the safety and smiles of Disney World, Epcot Center, and the other theme parks outside Orlando don’t have much impact on the Parramore neighborhood, also known as the notorious 8 Mile strip in the city’s downtown. The violent crime rate is about eight percent (that’s quadruple the national average), and there are nearly 20,000 property crimes reported in Orlando each year. (That includes burglary, arson, grand theft auto, and more, FYI.) So if you go to Orlando, stick to the Disney areas.
8. Chicago, Illinois
If you have been paying even glancing attention to the news in recent years, you have probably heard that Chicago, Illinois, is experiencing a horrific epidemic of violent crime. The city, long plagued by violence, has seen a recent upwelling in the number of annual deaths caused by shootings, with a shocking 762 murders (most caused by firearm) in 2016. That was an almost 60% increase in the number of violent deaths from just one year earlier, and unfortunately the higher rate looks like it may continue this year as well. For some context, the rate of gun death in Chicago is around 11.6, which makes it slightly higher than that of the nation of Guyana, which is indeed considered a Third World country.
7. Flint, Michigan
Flint, Michigan has enjoyed its share of good times and been through its share of bad times. Right now, Flint is enduring the latter, and chances are high that the good times are gone for good, as it were. Like many towns and cities in Michigan, Flint’s fortunes rose as the American auto industry grew ever more ascendant in the 1900s. At one point almost 200,000 people lived in the city, and the availability of well-paying jobs and decent housing enticed workers from far and wide. As GM downsized and offshored its labor force in the closing decades of the 20th Century, Flint’s slide began. Even before the recent crisis in which lead poisoned the city’s water supply, much of the town was already decrepit. The water debacle was merely insult and injury added to insult and injury.
6. Atlanta, Georgia
Atlanta, Georgia — The ATL to some, Hotlanta to others, though I hear people from the area hate that term — has long been known to have its issues with crime, gangs, and violence. For much of the past half century, Atlanta was ranked as one of the top five worst cities for violent crime rates, in fact. That dubious distinction has been shed in the past few years thanks to aggressive reforms to public safety efforts, but many Atlanta neighborhoods remain quite unsafe. The overall instances of firearm homicide are calculated to be about 17 out of 100,000, which puts ATL on par with Panama and the Dominican Republic.
5. Washington, DC
While it might come as a shock, in terms of crime and poverty, some of the worst neighborhoods in America are found right in the nation’s capital city. Washington, DC has an overall crime rate of 60 per 1,000 residents, which is pretty damn high. But consider that many areas of DC are heavily policed and generally safe, such as the wealthy enclave of Georgetown or the gleaming marble museums and government buildings of downtown. Thus you find neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Anacostia that have wildly disproportionate incidents of criminal activity and which are plagued by the blight and crumbling infrastructure that tend to accompany high crime rates.
4. Las Vegas, Nevada
Not too many years back, Las Vegas, Nevada was enjoying an absolute boom in residential construction projects, with thousands of new homes being built each year. Here’s the problem, though: in 2008, there was that whole Great Recession thing that kind of ruined a lot of people’s plans to become or remain homeowners. Builders had greatly overbuilt the Las Vegas market, and as a result multitudes of residences in and around the city ended up vacant or occupied illegally by squatters. (In fact, in the past few years, the number of incidents in which police have had to evict illegal squatters has risen by more than 25%.) Many neighborhoods in Las Vegas resemble ghost towns today, and are unlikely to be filled with productive, employed, tax-paying residents any time soon.
3. Breezy Point, New York
One can’t really appreciate how striking areas of Breezy Point, Queens, NY look today unless you had seen the area before October 2012, or unless you inspect pre-2012 pictures of the area. This tiny suburb of New York City sits on the water between the Atlantic Ocean and the Rockaway Inlet, which separates it from Manhattan and Brooklyn. The area has long been home to an upscale private community of homeowners and was about the farthest thing in the world from a Third World neighborhood. During the devastation of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, however, more than 350 homes in the area were destroyed and entire swaths of Breezy Point were ravaged beyond recognition, both by the storm and by subsequent fires. Several years later, parts of the area still show the scars of the storm, and this just a stone’s throw from downtown NYC.
2. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation
By and large, it’s a sad state of affairs on the reservation lands of many Native Americans. Fully half of the twenty poorest counties in the United States are found on reservation land, and many argue that these areas of America truly do represent Third World conditions within the continental U.S. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of the Oglala Lakota (FKA Sioux) in South Dakota is but one such location, but it is emblematic of many more. Among the issues plaguing the reservation, the most prominent are drug and alcohol abuse, diabetes and heart conditions, staggering unemployment (rates are over 80%) and poverty, and a growing gang culture among the youth.
1. Detroit, Michigan
It might seem like going for the low hanging fruit to say that many parts of Detroit, Michigan resemble Third World country neighborhoods, but here’s the thing: it’s true. Detroit has been hit hard by everything from the changing American auto industry to the recent housing and credit crisis, and today many Detroit residents often lack the services and amenities people living in First World countries simply take for granted. These include safe drinking water, reliable electricity, and access to emergency personnel, decent schools, and safe housing. Parts of downtown Detroit have enjoyed some resurgence in the past few years, but many others are about as inviting as a war-torn corner of a failed nation.