"While this new method is not linked to specific programs yet, it very well could be in the future," writes Botts, an agricultural and rural policy specialist. "Rural areas are notoriously hard to define, and the most rural areas in particular can be difficult to describe in objective, useful terms. The phrase 'trying to pin Jell-O to a wall' comes to mind. Nevertheless, the way you define a rural area determines which communities are eligible to apply for rural water improvements, what businesses can apply for low-interest loans, which areas are entitled to special Medicare reimbursements for their health services, and many other program questions."
Frontier and remote areas have been defined by population density (fewer than six people per square mile) and by county (as opposed to zip codes or census tracts), Botts notes, calling those "pretty blunt tools, since a more dense population might still be located a distance away from an urban center. And counties vary greatly in size." The proposed change would measure population density per square kilometer, about 61 percent smaller than a square mile, and define remoteness by travel time from various population centers.
There would be four levels of remoteness, developed by the Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture. Level 1 and Level 4 appear below; you can click on a map for a larger image, or click here for the four-page PDF with all four levels. For detailed data by ZIP code, go here.