For growing families in search of a place to call home, finding an area that has a top-notch education system, safe neighborhoods and a low cost of living is a high priority. Jobs that allow parents to comfortably provide for their children are also a must-have.
To identify the winners, Kiplinger teamed up with Kevin Stolarick, research director at the Martin Prosperity Institute, a think tank that studies economic prosperity. All of the cities on our list have reasonable living costs, strong employment growth and a population that scores high on measures of education and tech-savviness. For families, we also factored in the student-teacher ratio in the public schools and the crime rate.
The cost-of-living index measures how expensive it is to live in a city; the national average score is 100. That means cities with a score below 100 have a lower-than-average cost of living. Nationwide, the median household income is $43,024 and median income growth from 2006 to 2011 was 11.1%. The national unemployment rate is 8.2%.
Check out our picks, and share your thoughts in our reader comment box below:
1. Des Moines
Population (metro area): 569,633
Unemployment rate: 5%
Cost-of-living index: 91.3
Median household income: $57,185
Student-teacher ratio: 14.5
A low unemployment rate, high-paying financial-services jobs and below-average housing costs allow Des Moines residents to enjoy a standard of living that’s the envy of their friends in larger cities. Families can easily find a four-bedroom home with an attached garage in the $200,000 range.
Most families don't need to shell out extra money to pay for private schools. Des Moines' public schools offer small class sizes, and Iowa's test scores are above average. Rush hour is blissfully brief, an attribute highly valued by busy parents.
The city and suburbs are connected by more than 300 miles of bike and walking trails. In the summer, families can take in a minor league baseball game at Principal Park, home to the Triple-A Iowa Cubs. Brenton Skating Plaza, part of the 1.2-mile Principal Riverwalk that is scheduled for completion this year, is a popular wintertime destination.
2. Manchester-Nashua, N.H.
Population (metro area): 400,721
Unemployment rate: 4.8%
Cost-of-living index: 119.9
Median household income: $68,513
Student-teacher ratio: 13.8
Set along the Merrimack River amid a classic New England landscape, these two former mill towns and surrounding communities are both affordable and livable. Although the median home price (about $195,000) exceeds the national median, so does the median income. New Hampshire residents pay high property taxes but no state income tax or sales tax. Families with school-age children tend to gravitate to nearby towns such as Bedford, Amherst and Hollis, where the schools outperform those in Manchester and Nashua.
Local event calendars are chock-full of family-friendly activities, including minor league baseball and hockey, as well as hands-on activities at the SEE Science Center and the Currier Museum of Art. Residents are within an hour's drive of the ocean, White Mountains and lakes region.
Workers enjoy a brief commute, while those who work in Boston pay for their New Hampshire lifestyle in driving time and Massachusetts state income tax. A first-rate regional airport with lots of direct flights to major cities is a boon for parents who travel for business.
3. Trenton-Ewing, N.J.
Population (metro area): 366,513
Unemployment rate: 7.6%
Cost-of-living index: NA
Median household income: $71,767
Student-teacher ratio: 11.5
For parents who work in Philadelphia and New York but don't want to raise their kids there, this is a prime location, located midway between the two. Many suburbanites also commute into Trenton for jobs in state government.
The big draw for families in Mercer County is Princeton (home to Princeton University) and its top-flight public schools. Families who can't afford pricier Princeton look to somewhat more affordable West Windsor or Plainsboro and Cranbury (in Middlesex County). Closer-in suburbs (such as Ewing, Robbinsville and Hamilton) offer attractive and affordable housing, but the trade-off may be paying for private school for the kids.
Many of Mercer County's communities are internationally diverse and progressive. Parents are highly educated and expect the same of their children, resulting in a highly competitive atmosphere. Mercer County also offers abundant, county-run recreation centers and is within easy driving distance of the Jersey Shore and the Pocono Mountains.
4. Dallas-Fort Worth.
Population (metro area): 6,371,773
Unemployment rate: 6.8%
Cost-of-living index: 94.0
Median household income: $55,459
Student-teacher ratio: 14.8
Numerous corporations have located their headquarters in this northern Texas city. Many of their employees settle in the fast-growing northern suburbs of Dallas (such as Richardson, Plano, Allen and Frisco) for the good schools and homes with big yards and swimming pools (where the median home price runs $210,000).
Families make friends through school, church, sports and lots of mothers' support groups. The city's Arts District, the nation's largest, offers multiple venues, such as the Dallas Museum of Art, with activities and camps for kids. The Museum of Nature & Science will expand with a new facility that opens in 2013. Interactive exhibits will emphasize science, math, technology and natural history.
The car rules here, despite the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system. Commuters endure the fifth worst traffic congestion in the U.S. (in terms of wasted fuel and lost time, according to the Texas Transportation Institute).
Population (metro area): 1,054,323
Unemployment rate: 8.0%
Cost-of-living index: 98.6
Median household income: $51,434
Student-teacher ratio: 11.5
Rochester's iconic company, Eastman Kodak, may be in bankruptcy, but this area has family-friendly assets -- including top-ranked public and private schools, a good economy (Kodak aside) that enjoys a low jobless rate, a park system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and a hiking and bike trail along the Genesee River. Living costs are below the national average, aided by affordable homes (median price: $87,899).
The presence of the University of Rochester (with its Eastman School of Music) and Rochester Institute of Technology add a youthful cultural vibe. Kid-friendly activities include visits to the National Museum of Play at the Strong and Rochester Museum and Science Center (which includes a planetarium), as well as the Seneca Park Zoo. Rather see sports? You can choose among hockey (Rochester Amerks), Triple-A baseball (Red Wings) or soccer (Rhinos).