URBANA, Ill. – If you’ve ever taken a true/false test and found yourself wishing that on some questions there was a third choice of “both” you’ll be able to identify with Andy Isserman’s disappointment in the way the federal government defines urban and rural America.
Either/or. “Basically, the system identifies an area of the country as either metropolitan or nonmetropolitan. But this simplistic either/or definition doesn’t do justice to the many areas of the country that are blended,” said Isserman, agricultural economist at the University of Illinois.
According to the way data is currently collected, the Grand Canyon is in metropolitan America and so are more than a million farmers.
Isserman researched the reasons why this unsatisfactory method is being used to define urban and rural America and has some easy suggestions to make the data much more representative of the country’s locations and populations.
Current system. The current system looks at population density to define urban versus rural which Isserman compares to the data you could get if you flew over the landscape in an airplane, mapping the areas that are more congested with buildings.
“Making nonmetropolitan synonymous with rural ignores too much of rural America – defining 30 million rural people as outside the territory of interest,” said Isserman.
“It can lead to incorrect analyses of rural economic conditions and welfare because the majority of rural people are excluded from the data.”
Makes a difference. This type of misrepresentation can lead to misallocation of federal funds.
“Rural people do not qualify for some rural programs and funds because they live in counties that are designated metropolitan when some of the rural folks commute to urban areas for jobs,” said Isserman.
Isserman developed a new method to distinguish counties by their urban and rural character – because counties are the smallest units for which comprehensive data are regularly available.
Counties. “Recognizing that most rural people live in mixed counties is fundamental. We ignore only 15 percent of rural people if we focus on rural and mixed rural counties or only 5 percent if we include all but urban counties, both of which are better than ignoring 51 percent when considering non-metropolitan counties only, as is presently the case.
“Better yet is to understand the context within which all people live and not leave anyone out when making public policy.”
Looking at the blended nature of each county rather than trying to use a confining definition of either urban or nonurban will be much more useful for research and policy, said Isserman.
“For example, there are 737 counties that are entirely rural, perhaps ideal candidates for certain kinds of rural programs, or 175 counties with more than 50,000 rural residents each, as well as 3 million rural folks living in densely settled urban counties.
Not black and white. “There is no need or excuse to treat counties as a black box assigned to either rural or urban. Most are mixed, which creates a rich research laboratory and a wide variety of policy contexts.”
Isserman recommends that some important rural and regional research based on nonmetropolitan counties be redone incorporating a few added lines of computer code and the rural-urban density codes he developed.
“Having found that urban-rural integration and rural character are two important but separate dimensions, we can measure both on the county level with continuous variables such as the proportion of employed residents who commute to metropolitan counties, the proportion of the population that is rural, and the density of population settlement,” said Isserman.
Dig deeper. He would also like to see policy regulations reviewed to make sure the people we are trying to reach are being served.
“Establishing public policy to address rural problems but defining eligibility by nonmetropolitan status would disqualify millions of rural people.”
Can do better. Isserman believes that the ideal data system is within our grasp due to the ability today to transfer data more effectively than a decade or even a half decade ago when the last U.S. Census was taken.
“These data will enable us to study rural separated from urban and learn what rural America is,” he said.
“The better statistical system, better informed public policy, and better allocation of public funds are in the national interest.”
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