I don't really have the frame of reference to be able to vouch for this personally, but there does seem to be a perception that there is something superlative about Merced. And more often than not, superlatively negative. The crime rate, the unemployment rate, and the poverty rate all stand out as big drags on the city's appeal. My goal has been to understand this better, because my own instinct is that this is a perfectly nice place to live and obviously I have some personal investment in that theory. My latest discovery poking around statistics and local newspapers has been a very simple fact: Merced is very young. The average age here is 28.1 and 46.1% of people are under the age of 24. Under the age of 24 is also a pretty good description of the individuals involved in a lot of the crime stories in the local paper. Throughout society, there's a strong correlation between youth and crime or violence in general (I should probably find a citation for this but I'm feeling lazy).
What's striking is that Merced is young, even compared to nearby places like Modesto (median age 34.2). Fresno and Stockton are only slightly older, at 29.3 and 30.8* respectively, but you don't generally hear anyone singing those places' praises either. For comparison, the median age in San Jose is 35.2 and in San Francisco it's 38.5. 36.8 is the national median. I think the crime, unemployment, and poverty statistics for the area need to be understood in that light.
The next thing I need to figure out is what it means that, in a city of almost 80,000 people, the top ten employers only account for a little over 10,000 jobs. I guess this wouldn't seem so very odd except that Wal-Mart is number ten at 311 jobs in the area. Where does everyone else work? The kind of small mom & pop businesses that get exempted from every major piece of pro-labor legislation? What are the ramifications of that in the community? Also, I can't help but notice that the real big employers in the area are the county, the city, and the schools...all told it adds up to more than 7000 of those 10,000 jobs at the mercy of falling tax revenue and statewide budget cuts. No wonder it's not a great time to be looking for a job here.