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No. 7 Madison, Wisconsin

You can thrive in our number-seven pick even if you don't work in politics or education.

Population: 584,154Income Growth: 8.2%Cost of Living Index: 100Median Household Income: $58,090Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class: 35%

You can't argue with Madison's numbers. The Wisconsin city has a long track record of low unemployment, and its jobless rate is currently three percentage points below the national average. This city also wins for its low crime rate, first-rate public schools and a ready-made economy that feeds off of its two largest assets: The University of Wisconsin (and its expanding research centers) and the Wisconsin state capital.

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But you don't have to work in politics or education to thrive here. Those two institutions account for only 20% of Madison's jobs. Many of the rest come from its strong mix of tech and biotech firms. And the city is friendly for start-ups, with five business incubators that fuel employment.

Expect the offbeat. The satirical newspaper The Onion hails from Madison, as do several indie music labels and a hurling team.By 2016 Madison may be linked via high-speed rail to Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. Plans are under way, but funding may depend on the 2016 Olympics. A winning bid for Chicago would give Madison three cycling events to host and help land that high-speed connection.

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