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Is your town urban or rural? A lot of money rides on the government’s answer — which may soon change.

The Trump administration proposed expanding what is defined as ‘rural’

- April 19, 2021

Is your hometown rural or urban? This may seem like a narrow technical issue for demographers. But how the government classifies metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas matters for distributing government benefits and more. As a result, it’s closely watched by politicians, researchers and advocates alike.

And it may be changing. On the last full day of the Trump administration, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), a bureaucratic office that operates under the president’s direction, proposed changing how the government decides which parts of the country are urban and which are rural.

Here’s why it matters.

What is a Metropolitan Statistical Area?

Since 1949, OMB has been defining urban counties as those containing something it calls a metropolitan statistical area (MSA), a cohesive economic and social community of 50,000 people or more. Typically, MSAs have a core urban population center surrounded by smaller suburbs and exurbs. Beginning in 2003, OMB also delineated “micropolitan” statistical areas, or communities containing at least one urban cluster of at least 10,000 but fewer than 50,000 residents. More than half of rural Americans live in an urban county, albeit not in the MSA.

Currently, 384 metropolitan and 534 micropolitan statistical areas exist in the United States. Although MSA classifications originally were intended to be used solely to describe a county, policymakers have used them to make policy on issues such as health care, education and housing.

Both the Government Accountability Office in 2004 and Congress in 2014 have pushed OMB to update the classification because of changes in population distribution over the past 50 years, such as urban sprawl, innovations in public and private transportation, and trends toward higher-density housing. After Congress’s request for a report on how the metro/nonmetro classification affects public policy, the Congressional Research Service concluded that changing those designations would require reviewing the statutes, regulations and formulas associated with all government programs. Paralyzed by the task, OMB tabled any proposed changes to the MSA classifications. Until now.

Trump’s OMB wanted to expand rural America

The Trump OMB proposed doubling an MSA’s minimum population from 50,000 to 100,000 people. Under the new definition, 255 of the country’s 3,006 counties would be shifted from metropolitan to nonmetropolitan — expanding the rural United States, on paper at least, from 14 percent to 20 percent of the country’s population.

Existing rural Americans live in counties with a mean population of 23,000 people. The newly defined rural citizens would live in counties with a mean population of 75,000, or three times as many people. Most of these are predominantly White, middle-class neighborhoods currently classified as exurbs or bedroom communities — people unlikely to be raising cattle or lacking broadband Internet.

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Measurement affects who gets what from the government

Why does it matter how the government classifies places as rural or urban? In our research, we compare two statistics for median household income, one calculated using a county-level OMB classification and the other calculated using a Zip code-level Agriculture Department classification. From the first to the second classification, the gap in median household income between urban and rural areas increases by more than two-thirds. If policymakers want to target the neediest areas, they must have an accurate and consistent way to determine which areas those are.

Local government officials from both urban and rural areas worry that the new classifications will disqualify them from federal programs and funding they’re receiving. For example, transportation, housing, health-care and education policy all allocate federal funding using OMB classifications. Further, officials from rural areas worry that they’ll be competing for funding with newly “rural” wealthier areas.

That’s in part because less populous areas have smaller governments and a skimpier tax base than more populous areas — and so they have a harder time competing for money from state and federal governments. Cities big enough to hire lobbyists can bring in more state funding than those that cannot. Small towns such as Phillipsburg, Mont., with 900 residents, would have a hard time competing for federal money with newly “rural” areas such as Santa Fe, N.M., with 84,000 residents. And those newly “rural” areas worry that they’ll no longer be eligible for federal programs earmarked for urban areas.

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Bipartisan pushback

Although the Biden administration now has the reins, OMB’s proposed classification change is still working through the system. Before a proposed rule takes effect, federal law requires four steps: publication in the Federal Register; receiving public comments; reviewing comments and changing the rule as appropriate; final publication, stating when the rule becomes effective. On March 19, OMB completed a month-long public comment period. Statistical experts from different federal agencies are now reviewing nearly 900 comments.

Both Republicans and Democrats objected to the change. One-quarter of U.S. senators, from both parties and many from rural states, urged officials to reconsider. Metropolitan classification affects how government services are distributed, something that Americans may hold their legislators accountable for.

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There is no single way to classify rural America

The new regulation would more closely align with how Americans themselves classify their neighborhoods. In our research, we found that only 15 percent of nationally representative respondents who described their neighborhood as “rural” actually live in a Zip code that the Agriculture Department classified as rural. That is, rural “identity” is only loosely correlated with the government’s classification of rural areas.

How people perceive their communities and how the government classifies those communities may never align perfectly. Some self-identified rural Americans are surely comparing their areas to the big cities they think of as “urban,” even if the city is not considered large nationally, such as Missoula, Mont., or Burlington, Vt. Or they may be influenced by regional identities, in which residents of a state dominated by cornfields may view themselves as “rural” — or stereotypes in which “urban” conveys areas dense with poverty and dominated by people of color.

The rural United States is as varied as its urban areas, with different economic structures, geographic features and socio-demographic makeups. U.S. politics has become divided between urban and rural voters. Those political divisions are strongly affected by perceptions of who is left out of the government benefits. How the government defines each area could affect those political tensions.

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Zoe Nemerever (@ZoeNemerever) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California at San Diego.

Melissa Rogers (@MelissaZRogers) is the associate dean of the School of Social Science, Policy and Evaluation and associate professor in the division of politics and economics at Claremont Graduate University.