When contemplating a move, there are a lot of things to consider: the cost of housing, transportation options and proximity to relatives.
If you have a family with children, the list of variables grows considerably. How good are the schools? How long are the waitlists for day care slots? What is the usual air quality? Is the weather conducive to outdoor play most of the year?
Though finding an affordable place that meets all these requirements can feel daunting, remote and hybrid work options have given more families the flexibility to relocate and improve their quality of life.
WalletHub, a personal finance website, last week released its list of “2023′s Best & Worst Places To Raise A Family.” In coming up with the ranking, it analyzed data from 182 U.S. cities, including the 150 most populated cities overall as well as at least two of the most populous cities in each state. Analysts examined 45 metrics spread over five categories (family fun, health and safety, education and child care, affordability, and socioeconomics) to determine the results.
Some of the data confirms cities’ reputations. New York was among the most unaffordable places to live (ranked No. 177 out of 182) but it’s high (No. 8) on the list for family fun, which includes factors like the number of ice skating rinks, bicycle rental locations and playgrounds. New York ranked first in playgrounds per capita, in fact.
New York has more playgrounds per capita than any other major U.S. city.
Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and Detroit ranked last on the list overall (at No. 182 and No. 180), as well as in the area of socioeconomics, which includes metrics such as the share of families living in poverty, unemployment and the foreclosure rate.
But aside from San Francisco (ranked No. 10), the top locales weren’t big population hubs but smaller or midsized cities that might not be on your radar.
The top 10 overall are:
Overland Park, Kansas.
South Burlington, Vermont.
San Diego, California.
San Jose, California.
San Francisco, California.
California made a strong showing, accounting for half of the top 10 locations. Several of the cities benefit from proximity to Silicon Valley and its wealth. Fremont, located 38 miles south of San Francisco, ranked not just first overall but also in the categories for socioeconomics as well as education and child care. Its median household income, according to the U.S. Census, is over $153,000 (compared with Detroit, in last place on WalletHub’s overall ranking, at around $35,000). Though Fremont’s affordability ranking (No. 18) wasn’t in the top 10, it wasn’t too far down the list, either.
Seven of the top 10 cities overall were also in the top 10 for socioeconomics, but only two (Overland Park in Kansas and Plano in Texas) made it into the top 10 for affordability.
Overland Park was rated the most affordable city. According to Zillow, the average home value there is over $425,000. WalletHub’s affordability rankings also took into account cost of living. Overland Park ranked No. 5 for education and child care, and No. 17 for health and safety.
San Diego was the only overall top 10 city that also ranked high (No. 5) for family fun. This category was dominated by big metropolises like Los Angeles and New York. Las Vegas, which isn’t always associated with kid-friendly fun, came in at No. 2 in that category.
While economic standing and quality of life frequently go hand in hand, “being a wealthy city does not necessarily make it a good place to raise a family,” Jill Gonzalez, senior analyst at WalletHub, told HuffPost.
“The cities that scored high are those that have better access to healthy foods, low crime rates and a high quality school system,” she continued.
“It’s also worth noting that the best cities tend to have a higher share of two parent families, a lower separation and divorce rate,” said Gonzalez. Irvine and Fremont had the lowest divorce rates, while Detroit and Cleveland had the highest.
The following cities ranked in the bottom 10 overall:
San Bernardino, California.
Newark, New Jersey.
These cities shared low ratings for health and safety. Baltimore, Birmingham, Detroit and Memphis (along with St. Louis, Missouri, which ranked No. 160 overall) had the highest rates of violent crime per capita. Detroit and Newark also made the bottom five for median family salary (adjusted for cost of living).
There is overlap among the bottom-ranking cities with measurements of the “Physical activity Access Disparity” among children, a metric developed by researchers at the University of Georgia that considers neighborhoods based on the “availability, accessibility, affordability, accommodation, and acceptability” of physical activities.
By this metric, cities at the bottom of WalletHub’s list like Detroit and Baltimore can be described as “play deserts,” in the same way that areas lacking grocery stores are sometimes called food deserts. Both of these typically overlap with areas of poverty. Researchers Lan Mu and Jue Yang found play deserts clustered in the Deep South and the southwestern U.S. (You can see how your city stacks up on this interactive map).
While low-income areas are less likely to have cities rich with play spaces (“play oases”), there are also higher-income counties that qualify as play deserts, sometimes because of a lack of greenness, poor air quality or other hazards, according to the University of Georgia researchers. This shows that no single piece of information can capture how family-friendly a location is. If you want to find a new city, it’s best to consider a diverse set of factors, and to prioritize those that matter most to your family.
Of course, a long-distance move isn’t always a possibility. But even if you aren’t able to pack up and head across the country, you can still take family-friendly metrics into account for weighing local options.
When choosing a new place to live, consider factors like “proximity to a good school, whether there are playgrounds nearby, and of course whether it’s a safe neighborhood for both children and adults,” said Gonzalez. “The presence of other families with similarly aged children is always a plus, as is the availability of family doctors and pediatricians.”
You certainly don’t need to live in a top-ranked city to improve your quality of life. Changing jobs, making time to see family and friends, and engaging in activities you enjoy can improve your personal well-being while benefiting your family in turn — and these may be just a drive across town.