Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Conflicting federal definitions of 'rural' muddy the waters

130 counties with mostly or entirely rural populations (based on density in census tracts) are located in the nation's major metropolitan areas. Click on the image to enlarge it, or click here for the interactive version. (Daily Yonder map)
How do you define rural? It's a question that bedevils researchers, journalists, government and non-profit organizations, and even colleges (who gets a rural scholarship?), Amanda Kool writes for The Daily Yonder.

Kool, a lawyer and author, first noticed the weird disconnect in legal definitions of rurality when she moved from Boston to a rural area near Cincinnati a few years ago. "Bracken County, Kentucky is a long way from Boston in more ways than one," she writes. "And yet according to one of the most frequently used systems for defining what is rural and what is urban, both places are counted in the very same column of data, along with our nation’s other most urban locales."

That's because of differences in how different federal bodies define rurality. The Department of Agriculture splits counties into nine categories along a rural-urban spectrum by total population, market area and commuting time. "Three of them are based on census places, three others on census urban areas, one on designations of Office of Management and Budget Metropolitan Statistical Areas, one on USDA Economic Research Service rural-urban commuting area codes, and yet another based on the USDA Business and Industry Loan Program definition," Kool writes.

The Census Bureau, however, says "nonmetro" isn't the same as "rural," and more than half the people living in USDA-recognized rural areas really live in a metro area, Kool writes. That's because counties like Bracken have census tracts that classify as rural because of their low population density, but as metropolitan because at least a fourth of their labor force commutes to the metro's main county.

"The problem here is much bigger than a cultural crisis of identity," Kool writes. "Conflating notions of urban and rural with notions of metro and non-metro, and mixing usage of USDA ERS definitions with Census Bureau definitions, creates a muddy mess of what we think we know about broadband access, health care, employment, education, poverty, and so much else, both here and there. It means that the lines we use to separate the haves and the haves-not on any given topic appear less stark than human experience suggests, since under-counting the issues only serves to soften the statistics on either side of the line. From a programmatic perspective, it means that streams of funding for services intended to level the playing field do not reach some communities that might most need it, or that might best utilize it."

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