Rural researchers concerned about ‘rural’ definition changes

rural farm scene

The White House Office of Management and Budget is considering a recommendation that would expand the definition of rural to include larger areas.

A committee, tasked with reviewing the standards for metropolitan statistical areas in 2018, suggested increasing the minimum population for an area to be considered metropolitan from 50,000 to 100,000, to keep up with how the U.S. population as a whole has grown. Public comments on the recommendations were open Jan. 19 through March 19.

This is the first time anyone has suggested changing the minimum population for that definition since standard metropolitan areas were first defined in a 1950 census, a March 18 Brookings Institute analysis said.

But rural researchers say the changes could make it harder for rural communities to get funding and for researchers to track what is happening in rural areas, and that they’re based on an oversimplified view of what metropolitan means.

“It’s not that everything going into this is wrong, it’s just that it was a really simplified lens that is going to create a lot more pain and confusion than benefit,” said Chris Estes, associate director of the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, a global nonprofit focused on equity, economics and social and health outcomes in rural areas.

A sign-on letter by the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group and the Brookings Institute, a D.C.-based public policy nonprofit, estimated that areas in about 250 counties would be reclassified as nonmetropolitan.

The letter asked the office to delay acting on the recommendations until the full impacts of the changes are understood. About 430 organizations, local governments and individuals signed on to the letter.


These definitions are used an a couple of ways. Federal programs often use them to assign funding, especially in metropolitan areas — for example, large metropolitan areas get Title 1 funding from Community Development Block Grants, while areas that aren’t metropolitan compete for that grant funding.

“If you’re an area that used to be considered part of a MSA … and you’re now going to be non-metro, you risk losing some of the dedicated funding you had before,” Estes said.

On the flip side, they can also be used to differentiate what areas are rural and can be connected to how the U.S. Department of Agriculture targets its funding. While the office states “nonmetro” is not meant to define “rural,” the Brookings Institute analysis says many use “nonmetro” to mean “rural.”

There’s also the sense of status. If the definition changes, some states would lose metropolitan statistical areas. Some fear that could make them look less developed, or like they have no city life in the state. Several state agencies in Wyoming wrote public comments opposing the changes, saying they would cause the state to lose the only metropolitan areas it has.

Mansfield, the largest city in Richland County, Ohio, and Parkersburg, West Virginia, would both be reclassified under the changed definition. Mansfield, Richland County and Parkersburg officials wrote public comments opposing the change and saying it could disrupt their funding.

The areas that would be reclassified tend to be larger and more prosperous than currently rural areas, the analysis said.

“So, they’re now competing with existing rural communities for already scarce rural dollars,” Estes said.

While some have suggested shifting funding to go with the new definition, that could be challenging, with large communities unlikely to want to give up their funding, and government agencies likely to need time to adjust their rules and programs, he added.


The definitions also play into how data on things like average housing prices and wages are collected. The change would also make things much harder for researchers to track.

“Suddenly, rural statistics are going to change overnight,” Estes said.

If more areas that are currently metropolitan are considered rural, things like unemployment could look lower and wages could look higher, even though in reality, nothing has changed. That could mask needs for rural areas, and make it harder to tell when positive changes are happening, Estes said.

Members of a multi-state, U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded research project on demographics in rural America, W4001, expressed similar concerns in public comments on the recommendations.

“Consistency is essential for accurately monitoring rural population change and the demographic processes — fertility, mortality and migration — that account for population growth and decline,” the group wrote.


The Aspen Institute, Brookings Institute and W4001 all urged the office to not adopt the changes yet and instead launch a more in-depth analysis of what these changes would mean.

There are factors outside of just population size that need to be considered, Estes said. Things like commuting patterns, since some commute into neighboring cities from more rural areas to work, can help shed light on the realities for a particular neighborhood.

He also wants to see more focus on defining what is metropolitan, what is rural and what is in between, rather than focusing on defining metropolitan areas and considering everything else nonmetropolitan.

If rural areas and in-between areas are lumped together, “you’re kind of missing the story,” Estes said.

It’s also important to fully analyze what these changes will mean for federal programs that fund metropolitan or rural areas, he added.


It’s also a strange time to analyze populations, in general. During the pandemic, many have shifted to remote work.

Some who are doing remote work have even moved to different areas or states. For example, Bozeman, Montana, has seen an influx of new residents, Estes said. While some offices are going back to in person work or are planning to later in 2021, it’s hard to know who will come back and who will stay in the new places they’ve relocated to.

“We won’t really understand the impact of that probably until the next two years or so,” Estes said.

Some relocated to escape COVID-19 related restrictions — for example, many left New York for Florida, he said.

“But you don’t know if they’re going to stay there,” he said. “Are people really going to want to stay in that new place that seemed better in the short run, but in the long run, they kind of miss the culture and the community they came from … and they go back?”

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