Updated February 19, 2014

Study: Best Cities to Live and Work


Living in a big city offers plenty of perks—great restaurants, cultural activities and, often, a diverse array of job opportunities—but there are also many downsides, including traffic jams, high living costs and worrisome crime rates. But, what if you could have the best of both worlds?

It turns out you can. Plenty of smaller cities across the U.S. boast vibrant cultural scenes, fine dining, and a healthy job market—without the traffic and crime. How do we know? CreditDonkey studied metro areas with a population of 500,000 to 1 million. We then looked at five measures: unemployment rate, wages, restaurants per capita, commute time and violent crime rate. The following 10 cities are smaller, yet still offer a lot of the perks, and fewer of the perils, of big city life.

Study Methodology

To find the best cities to live and work, we narrowed down our list to include metropolitan areas with populations below 1 million and more than 500,000. We ranked the resulting 51 metro areas on these five categories:

  1. Unemployment Rate
  2. Employee Wages
  3. Restaurants Per Capita
  4. Commute Time
  5. Violent Crime Rate

We began by looking at Bureau of Labor Department data on each city’s unemployment rate and average employee wages. If you cannot find work, or the work you do find pays a dismal salary, how are you to enjoy the great things the city has to offer?

Next, we researched the number of restaurants per capita using data from the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s no secret that you have to eat to live, and having a large selection of restaurants makes living a whole lot better.

Who doesn't hate waiting in traffic? For every second you sit behind the wheel idling on the freeway, you are losing time you could be doing something you actually like to do. Maybe you would rather be catching some drinks with friends, relaxing at home with family, or yelling at the TV during the ballgame in your post-work hours. Aim for proximity to your workplace with one of the places on our list, which will have a relatively short commute time.

Last, but certainly not least, using data from the FBI, we ranked each city by violent crime per 100,000 individuals. A city riddled with crime can wipe out any potential to be great. No one can relax is everyone is living in constant fear.

Any city that ranks high over these categories has a good chance of being a nice place to live and work.

10 Best Cities to Live and Work

10. Poughkeepsie, NY

  • Unemployment Rate: 6.9%
  • Employee Wages: $47,070
  • Restaurants Per Capita: 1 per 1,004 inhabitants
  • Commute Time: 32.6 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 1 per 264 inhabitants

There must be something in the water in New York because Poughkeepsie is the third city from the empire state to make our list. Although Poughkeepsie’s commute time ranked dead last among all of the other cities we researched, it ranked so high in all other categories that it still made the list. Most notably, the city ranked number 2 in restaurants per capita and number 7 in employee wages. Use the extra drive time to decide where you would like to dine for the evening.

Did you know?: You could take a roundtrip drive from Poughkeepsie to Albany to Syracuse and back in under seven hours, according to Google Maps. That means you could see 30% of our list in one day.

9. Boise City, ID

  • Unemployment Rate: 6.2%
  • Employee Wages: 40,610
  • Restaurants Per Capita: 1 per 1,544 inhabitants
  • Commute Time: 21.2 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 1 per 211 inhabitants

Ranking in the top 10 in violent crime rate, unemployment rate, and commute time was enough for Boise City to make it onto our list. One great point of pride for the city is the Boise River Greenbelt. The Greenbelt runs for 25 miles following the Boise River through the heart of the city. The pathway allows you to access the many beautiful parks that line the river, and it also provides commuters with a scenic route through the city.

Did you know?: Boise State’s Bronco Stadium, with its blue AstroTurf, is the only field of its kind in the world. It was installed in 1986. In 2002, BSU installed AstroPlay. In 2008, the field was replaced a fourth time with FieldTurf.

8. Omaha, NE

  • Unemployment Rate: 4.3%
  • Employee Wages: $42,220
  • Restaurants Per Capita: 1 per 1,518 inhabitants
  • Commute Time: 20 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 407 per 100,000 inhabitants

Trailing only Honolulu, Omaha ranked 2nd on our list with a 4.3% unemployment rate. This is well below the national average and ranked 18th out of 365 metropolitan areas within the United States. This exceptional unemployment rate may or may not have anything to do with the fact that the “Oracle of Omaha” Warren Buffet is from the city, but his role as one of the most successful businessmen in history has played a part.

Did you know?: The NCAA College World Series has been held in Omaha since 1950.

7. Harrisburg, PA

  • Unemployment Rate: 6.8%
  • Employee Wages: $44,750
  • Restaurants Per Capita: 1 per 1,368 inhabitants
  • Commute Time: 22 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 300 Per 100,000 inhabitants

Harrisburg is the capitol of Pennsylvania. The city rebounded quite nicely from some economic problems a few years ago, and isn’t afraid to let it be known. In 2010, Mayor Linda D. Thompson said during her state of the city address: “There is a mood of renaissance and rejuvenation across the city and the capital region. We have worked our way out of the worst financial crisis in the capital city’s history. We did it together. We did it by working toward the same vision and goal.” The work has paid off, too. Harrisburg ranks below the national average in unemployment and ranked 13th overall in employee wages.

Did you know?: Harrisburg celebrated its 200th anniversary as the state capital of Pennsylvania in 2012.

6. Honolulu, HI

  • Unemployment Rate: 3.8 %
  • Employee Wages: $46,260
  • Restaurants Per Capita: 1 per 1,285 inhabitants
  • Commute Time: 27 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 268 per 100,000 inhabitants

You didn’t really think Honolulu wasn’t going to make it on our list did you? This beautiful and exotic location gives you many reasons to want to live and work in the Aloha State. Besides breathtaking scenery and a plethora of entertainment options, Honolulu’s unemployment rate is astonishingly low. At just 3.8%, Honolulu is half a percent lower than the next closest city and 3.5% below the national average. It might take you a little longer to get to where you need to go in this capital city, but so what, you are in Hawaii. Enjoy the drive!

Did you know?: The Aloha Tower, built in 1926, was the tallest building in the Hawaiian Islands for four decades. It symbolized a welcoming point for visitors since travel to the island was done only by sea.

5. Syracuse, NY

  • Unemployment Rate: 7.4%
  • Employee Wages: $44,560
  • Restaurants Per Capita: 1 per 1,271 inhabitants
  • Commute Time: 20.3 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 304 per 100,000 inhabitants

Although Syracuse’s unemployment rate is quite a bit higher than the other cities on our list, it ranked high enough in our other categories to make it into the top 10. The commute time in Syracuse ranked 4th, and restaurants per capita ranked 14th out of 51. The city is also home to Syracuse University; founded in 1870, the university now has over 3,500 employees and is a mainstay of the community.

Did you know?: Vice President Joe Biden is an alumnus of Syracuse University.

4. Portland, ME

  • Unemployment Rate: 5.8%
  • Employee Wages: $44,100
  • Restaurants Per Capita: 1 per every 816 inhabitants
  • Commute Time: 25.1 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 133 per 100,000 inhabitants

Why is Portland on the list of best cities to live and work? The answer is simple: lots of food and hardly any crime. Portland ranked number 1 in restaurants per capita and number 2 in violent crime rate. The city’s unemployment rate is also well below the national average and ranked number 8 on our list. If it wasn’t for the longer commute time – which is still pretty decent – Portland might have found itself at the top.

Did you know?: Portland’s transatlantic port location is closer to Europe than any other transatlantic port in the United States.

3. Albany, NY

  • Unemployment Rate: 6.4%
  • Employee Wages: $47,650
  • Restaurants Per Capita: 1 per 1,127 inhabitants
  • Commute Time: 22.5 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 267 per 100,000 inhabitants

Albany is the capital city of New York and is about a two and a half hour drive north of the largest city in the United States. Even though Albany might not have all the bright lights and movie stars that NYC has to offer, it has a few good perks of its own. Compared to the big city, Albany has a much shorter commute to work. The city also came in 7th on the list for restaurants per capita. Therefore, it shouldn’t take you long to get to your favorite restaurant after work.

Did you know?: In honor of the year 1777, the Capitol building has 17 steps approaching the western entrance and 77 steps approaching the eastern entrance. This was the year that New Yorkers replaced its colonial government with its own state government.

2. Des Moines, IA

  • Unemployment Rate: 4.6%
  • Employee Wages: $44,910
  • Restaurants Per Capita: 1 Per 1,389 inhabitants
  • Commute Time: 19.7 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 289.3 Per 100,000 Inhabitants

If you were surprised to see Des Moines ranked second on our list, don’t worry, we were too. Regardless, the numbers don’t lie and Des Moines made the list for good reason. The city ranked 2nd in commute time and 4th in unemployment. Impressively, the city has managed to get most of its citizens employed and keep traffic time to a minimum. In addition, to help shelter the good people of Des Moines during the cold winter months, the city has 4 miles of downtown skywalks to keep them out of the elements.

Did you know?: In August of 1925, the National Bar Association was created in Des Moines.

1. Madison, WI

  • Unemployment Rate: 4.7%
  • Employee Wages: $46,100
  • Restaurants Per Capita: 1 per 1,175 inhabitants
  • Commute Time: 21.4 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 207 Per 100,000 inhabitants

Home to the University of Wisconsin and 6,000 acres of parkland, Madison has more than enough ways to keep you entertained. The capital city also ranked in the top 10 in each category we researched. That is a pretty impressive feat considering 51 cities made the cutoff. Nestled in between two lakes, Madison is an incredibly safe city with plenty of opportunity, making it a great city to both live and work.

Did you know?: The 1986 film Back to School, staring Rodney Dangerfield, was partially filmed at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.


Our data can help individuals make an informed choice for moving to a new location, but factors unique to their situation should be taken into account as well. While we did our best to base our findings on the most recent information available, violent crime data for some cities, such as Honolulu and Poughkeepsie, were from 2010 rather than 2012, when the stats for most of our cities could be found.

Go small but live large by choosing a smaller city for your next home. With this list as a guide, you could earn a decent wage but still have time to come home after work for a fun night out or quiet evening. You’ll have more time and many options for how you spend that time.

Ian K is a contributing writer at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and financial education website. Write to Ian K at ian@creditdonkey.com. Our data-driven analysis has been recognized by major news outlets across the country and has helped families make savvy financial and lifestyle decisions. (read more)

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