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A low cost of living, big companies like ExxonMobil, Southwest Airlines and Texas Instruments, and relatively low unemployment make Dallas second behind Houston.
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updated 7/13/2009 3:17:29 PM ET 2009-07-13T19:17:29

Look to Texas if you're willing to work hard to ride out the recession.

Today, being able to "get by" financially is enough for most people. But others are looking for more. They're looking for a big break.

Houston, recognized for its dynamic business environment, might be able to provide that. With high wages relative to cost of living and a fairly low unemployment rate of 6.3 percent, considering the financial turmoil over the last year, these factors make it the best city to get ahead. Other cities offering similar opportunities include Dallas, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and Boston.

It's not surprising that two Lone Star state cities come out on top. Houston boasts 20 of the best big companies in the country and 19 of the best small companies, according to Forbes' lists, including Sysco, human resources firm Administaff, and Noble Energy. Exxon Mobil, Southwest Airlines, and Texas Instruments — along with 15 other top companies — call Dallas home.

The same goes for Minneapolis. Companies like 3M, General Mills, and cola bottler PepsiAmericas provide thousands of jobs, and while the area's unemployment rate is a high 8.7 percent, it's still below the national average of 9.4 percent. What's more, the median household income in the metro is $65,091, far above the national average of $50,233.

Boston's economy tells a similar story. While the cost of living is high at 129.5 (the average is 100), the median income is $67,116 and the unemployment rate is 7.2 percent, more than two points below the national average.

But what about Pittsburgh? The city continues to decrease in population, despite the fact that the metro area has a $10.8 billion stake in the technology sector. People should reconsider the Steel City for its low cost of living; it lands at just 92.18 on the index. What's more, the area's biggest industries — health care, technology and education — are recession-resistant, necessary regardless of the economic outlook.

To compile our list, we looked at the country's 40 largest metropolitan statistical areas, geographic entities defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget used by federal agencies in collecting, tabulating and publishing federal statistics, and gauged the quality of the business environment by how many of the Forbes 400's best big companies and 200 best small companies were headquartered there. These are companies with strong growth prospects and positive revenue streams.

We also looked at each MSA's median income, collected from the U.S. Census Bureau, compared them with cost of living (provided by the Council for Community and Economic Research), as well as the most current unemployment rates, provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Each of these areas report unemployment rates below the national average. Most workers bring in a livable income. They boast some of the best-run companies in the world. But what really separates these cities from rest, even in trying times like these?

Simple: economic diversity.

Consider New York. Its economy is one of the most broadly based in the country. Need proof? Banks have lost billions and mass layoffs have followed, but the metro still maintains an unemployment rate of 7.6 percent, comfortably below the national average. And although the cost of living in the city is 130.20 on the index, the above-average median household income of $65,786 makes affording everyday goods a little bit easier.

The fact that 61 top companies from many different industries are based in the area, including retailer Aeropostale, biopharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Verizon Communications, is certainly a benefit.

Move there, or any of these cities, and you just may rise above the pack.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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