Change Would Expand the Definition of Rural to Cover More of the Country

Details on a proposed change of definition for Metropolitan Statistical Areas that would greatly expand the area of the country deemed rural.

April 21, 2021, 9:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Rural Community

Miks Mihails Ignats / Shutterstock

Zoe Nemerever and Melissa Rogers provide explanatory reporting on the ongoing process at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to change the way the federal government defines which parts of the country are urban and which are rural. The key term in question is the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA)—as reported by a Planetizen post from March 2021, changes proposed in the final days of the Trump administration would cut hundreds of MSAs from the list with potentially significant consequences for federal funding programs.

As noted by Nemerever and Rogers, the recent push to change the MSA classification is the result of over a decade of political pressure:

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.

The OMB proposal would transform the MSA designation by increasing the minimum population for the decade from 50,000 people to 100,000. While earlier reporting focused on the effect of the change would change 144 areas from metropolitan to nonmetropolitan designations, thus greatly expanding the amount of the country considered rural, this article focuses on the number of counties affected.

"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," according to Nemerever and Rogers.

The article includes a lot more details about the consequences should the change achieve final adoption. In the meantime, the Biden administration is still working on the change as opposition grows on both sides of the aisle in Congress. "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," according to the article.

Monday, April 19, 2021 in The Washington Post

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