The Best Cities for Raising a Family

By Tom Van Riper

Grand Rapids, Michigan doesn't boast a lot of affluence. The metro area population of 774,000 carries a median household of $47,040, good for just 65th place among America's 100 largest MSAs. The city's major claims to fame come from being a national leader in office furniture production, and for being the hometown of a U.S. president, Gerald Ford.

What Grand Rapids doses have: the distinction of being the best metro area in the country to raise a family in. Income may be relatively low, but the cost of living is even lower. The local school system ranks in the top third in the country. Commuting to work is a breeze. The housing foreclosure mess didn't leave Grand Rapids unscathed, chopping about 12% off area home values over the past few years. But that's still quite modest compared to many other places. Almost 90% of Grand Rapids' housing stock is affordable to a family at the median income level, the seventh-highest rate in the country. And the local crime rate falls well below the national average.

Click here to see photos of the Best Cities For Raising A Family

Do you live in one of the best cities for raising a family?Do you live in one of the best cities for raising a family? "The housing bubble never burst because there was never any real bubble," says Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, pointing out the mostly modest, 2,200 square foot colonials that dot the local landscape. Heartwell is a believer in public-private partnerships: Several neighborhood associations, using grant money in partnership with the city, work to keep things in good repair. Call it steady as she goes. If Miami, Florida, with its glitz and glamour giving way to real estate bust is the hare, Grand Rapids is the tortoise. "Even our most depressed neighborhoods are not blighted," he says.

The relative strength of Grand Rapids' housing market is enough to push it past the next two cities on our list, Boise, Idaho and Provo, Utah, both of which are particularly noted for low crime and high school quality. Not to mention the chance to mix urban and outdoor lifestyles.

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"For us, it's all about access," says David McCauley, a 48-year-old IT professional who grew up on the east coast and moved to Boise with his family several years ago. "Skiing in 45 minutes, fly fishing in the Boise River, which also has some cool kayaking spots. Mountain biking is literally out my door, and we live downtown." As for the kids? "They ride their bikes all over," says McCauley. "They're allowed to do things alone, but they're never really 'alone'."

Many young single types may judge a city based on its bike friendliness, club scene, and coffee houses per square mile, in addition to the economy. And why not? You're only young once. But once marriage and kids enter the picture, priorities change. School quality suddenly pops up as an issue. And those conditions that matter when you're single - median income levels, housing affordability and commuting hassles - become even more important once you need to answer to more people than yourself.

America's Safest Cities

Which city will your family be happiest in?Which city will your family be happiest in? We measured and ranked America's 100 largest metro areas by median income, overall cost of living, commuting delays, crime statistics, school quality, and housing affordability (measured two ways - by the percentage of people in the MSA owning homes, according to the Census Bureau, and by the percentage of homes in the area that are affordable to a family making the local median income, according to the latest joint study by Wells Fargo and the National Association of Home Builders). In addition to the Census Bureau, NAHB and Wells Fargo, data was provided by the FBI (via CQ Press -crime stats), the Texas Transportation Institute (commuting delays), greatschools.org (school quality rankings) and the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness (Cost of Living Index).
Other metros making the grade: Youngstown, Ohio, where incomes are still depressed but where cost of living is low and schools are good, and Raleigh, North Carolina, with high median income and top school rating.

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Of course, these things always come down to personal tastes and preferences. If you're looking to chase a fortune, party with the stars and feel the energy of millions, go to New York or Chicago. But if you're happy with a solid job that lets you get home in time to see the kids, and where the value of your house isn't likely to crumble tomorrow, the small-city life is tough to beat.

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