It's Complicated... Why What's Rural Matters

Last Updated: November 21, 2013

This article appeared in the November 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

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Do you consider yourself rural? Do you live or work in a place you think of as rural? Did your grandparents come from the country? Does the answer to ”What’s rural?” seem pretty obvious or at least intuitive to you?

Can you easily explain to your non-rural friends four or five ways that rural is different from urban, or suburban, or small town for that matter?

These questions are a lot harder than they seem at first blush, so let’s have some fun.

Yes or no?

  • Rural is any place with a core population of less than 50,000.
  • Rural is any place with a population under 2,500 people.
  • Towns of less than 1,000 people are considered rural.
  • Rural places are communities and open country located in non-metropolitan counties.
  • Rural is defined by low population density, not total population.
  • There are capital cities of American states that meet an official designation as rural.
  • Rural is open country.
  • Rural is a way of life.
  • Rural is a state of mind.

Surely, this is clearer with schools, right? A school is rural if:

  • A majority of its students live in rural places.
  • It is located in a district with fewer than 600 students.
  • It is located in a town of less than 2,500 people, no matter how many students are in the district.
  • It is small and located at least five miles from an urbanized area.

The best response to most of these questions is it depends — on the definition, the context, and, arguably, one’s personal perspective. In some cases, as in the “rural” capital cities, the answer is yes and no.

As for those capital cities, RPM estimates that seven state capital cities could be considered rural by at least one existing or proposed official definition. They include:

Montpelier, VT, pop. 7,705; Pierre, SD, pop. 14,072; Augusta, ME, pop. 19,136; Frankfort, KY, pop. 25,527; Helena, Montana, pop. 28,190; Juneau, Alaska, pop. 31,275; and Concord, New Hampshire, pop. 42,695;  

Keep reading to understand why.

So where does this leave rural schools and communities?

Funding and policy are often governed by if and how rural is defined, a solid understanding of the characteristics of rural places can enable policies to serve rural communities, their schools, and their students more effectively. Tapping rural potential and addressing rural challenges yields benefits for everyone. 

Rural: what is/what isn’t, not so easy

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines rural as “of or relating to the country, country people or life, or agriculture.”

That definition reflects popular understanding, but it also begs a lot of questions.

More hard-edged definitions are needed for public policy where the definition of rural determines whether a community or school is eligible for various grants and loans and, sometimes, how public policy will be implemented in that place.

Here again, defining rural is not a clear-cut task. By some accounts, there are at least 15 definitions of “rural” in use by federal agencies. As we’ll see, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rather, it reflects the complex nature and context of rural.

We’ll take a quick look at five of the more commonly used definitions as they apply to rural communities and schools.

Urbanized Areas, Urbanized Clusters, and Rural. Most official definitions of rural (as well as urban, suburban, and town) are based on data and designations assigned by the U.S. Census Bureau.

It is important to note that these definitions are not fixed. The Census Bureau updates its designations as it collects data. It also changes its definitions and designations with each decennial census. In 2012, the Bureau released definitions based on 2010 census data as follows:

  • Urbanized Areas: 50,000 or more people with a core population density of at least 1,000 people per square and adjoining territory with at least 500 people per square mile.
  • Urban Clusters: places with populations between 2,500 and 50,000 people.
  • Rural: all population, housing and territory not designated as urban, including open country with population densities less than 500 people per square mile and places with fewer than 2,500 people.

You can get more detailed descriptions of 2010 Census classifications here.

Metropolitan/Nonmetropolitan Counties is another widely used definition that designates entire counties as either urban or rural (described, in this case, as metropolitan or nonmetropolitan respectively). The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) makes the designations based on a combination of census data and work commuting patterns.

  • Metropolitan counties include
  1. central counties with one or more Urbanized Areas (densely settled with 50,000 or more people), and
  2. outlying counties where 25% of workers commute to or from (reverse commuting) the central county.
  • Nonmetro counties are essentially all other counties.

Many metropolitan counties include large swathes of land and communities that are rural as defined by the U.S. census. Therefore, OMB definitions tend to undercount the rural population.

Census and OMB definitions are used primarily for research and planning purposes. Which definition is most appropriate depends on the type of research and its purpose.

You can read more about the process of designating counties as metropolitan or nonmetropolitan here. You can see state-by-state maps of census designated places and metro/nonmetro counties along with other information here

Researching or serving?

Definitions in use by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) serve somewhat different purposes and govern the many loan and grant programs administered through USDA and targeted to rural areas and small towns.

USDA has historically used multiple definitions of rural, depending on the specific purposes of its various programs. For example, the Telecommunications Loan Program serves rural areas with populations under 5,000 — communities that have the most difficulty accessing high speed internet and other quality telecommunications. On the other hand, some USDA economic development programs are available to communities with populations up to 50,000. The rationale, in this case, is that these larger towns often serve as employment hubs for surrounding rural areas and therefore economic investment benefits rural residents. Other programs use different population thresholds (typically 10,000 or 20,000), all of which are less than 50,000.

In February, USDA issued a report to Congress that proposes simplifying its definitions to designate any community with fewer than 50,000 people as rural. The definition would apply to all USDA programs. The USDA asserts the change would simplify programs and incentivize regional planning and collaboration.

Advocates for smaller places have pushed back, however, arguing that the redefinition will direct a shrinking pot of federal funding for rural places to large regional towns. Those larger towns are relatively privileged in terms of existing infrastructure, revenue-generating capacity, and ability to attract investment. Some rural advocates suggest, therefore, that the re-definition will unfairly pit small rural communities against larger, better-resourced towns.

Addendum 4 of the USDA report (p 92) provides examples of “Filtering criteria” that could be used to rank proposals. Places with smaller populations could get more points. But critics note that point systems have their own problems. And some rural advocates argue that extra points for smallness are easily outweighed by different sets of extra points that favor larger places.

You can read the report here and the announcement of the proposed changes here.

Schools and districts: clarity and complexity

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a program of the U.S. Department of Education, assigns Locale Codes to schools and districts. In 2006–07, NCES introduced new Urban-Centric Locale Codes that designate schools and districts based on their relationship to an Urbanized Area. Note: districts are designated (with some exceptions) according to the locale code of the school/s which 50% of students attend; different schools within the district may have different locale codes.

  • City and Suburban schools are located in Urbanized Areas (core population of 50,000 or more with population density of at least 500 people per square mile) and defined as Large, Midsize, or Small, depending on the size of the city.
  • Town schools are located in Urban Clusters (population 2,500 to 50,000) and defined as Fringe, Distant, or Remote, based on their distance from an Urbanized Area.
  • Rural schools are in census-defined rural territory and defined as Fringe, Distant, or Remote, based on their distance from both Urbanized Areas and Urbanized Clusters.

Locale Codes prove useful for research because they create a consistent way to categorize schools based on their locations. The distance measures (fringe, distant, and remote) identify schools that are the most isolated and make it possible to distinguish among rural schools in very different circumstances. However, the codes are not a foolproof way of classifying schools, as we shall see later in this section.

You can read more about the NCES locale codes here.

The older Metro-Centric Locale Codes are used to determine district eligibility for the federal Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP). REAP is another frequently used method of identifying rural districts. REAP provides non-competitive federal grants to rural districts (not schools). Those grants are intended to ”help rural districts that may lack the personnel and resources to compete effectively for federal competitive grants and that often receive [formula] grant allocations in amounts that are too small to be effective in meeting their intended purposes.”

REAP defines rural based on a combination of district size, population density, poverty levels, and Metro-Centric Locale Codes. REAP-eligible schools fall into two categories.

The Small, Rural School Achievement Program (SRSA) is available to districts that meet all of the following criteria:

  • Total Average Daily Attendance is less than 600 students;
  • The district is located in a county with a population density under 10 people per square mile; and
  • Every school in the district is located in a community defined as rural by the Census Bureau.

See the Metro-Centric Locale Codes here.

The Rural and Low-Income School Program (RLIS) is available to districts that meet a different set of criteria:

  • The district is not eligible for a grant under the Small Rural School Achievement Program; and
  • 20% or more of the children served by the district are from families with incomes below the poverty line, and
  • Every school served by the district is defined as rural or small town (population under 25,000) in the metro-centric locale codes.

Again, you can see the Metro-Centric Locale Codes here.

The two different definitions help REAP serve rural schools in states with very different district organizations. SRSA districts are primarily in the Mid-West, West, and New England where rural districts are typically small. RLIS districts are concentrated in the South where most districts are highly consolidated at the county level, meaning the districts are generally fairly large and often include a non-rural town.

However, both the REAP and Urban-Centric Locale Codes — like all descriptors of rural — have some arbitrary characteristics. For example, a district with 650 students in a county with an average population density of four persons per square mile would likely have a rural Locale Code, but it would not be eligible for REAP funding, unless at least 20% of its students live in poverty. Likewise, a small high-poverty, back-side-of-the county K–12 school would not be eligible for REAP funding if it is located in a district that also includes a town of 28,000.

On the other hand, a very large suburban school, built five or six miles out from town (for the sake of cheap land and projected growth, perhaps), might be designated as rural in the Urban-Centric Locale Code.

There’s no getting around some of the difficulties in drawing lines to separate rural from urban and especially from suburban.

Context and culture: multi-dimensional measures

The varying definitions speak to the complexity of describing rural in a large and diverse country. Rural is, for many practical purposes, a product of context. Let’s explore this idea with a hypothetical community of 850 people located in different contexts.

If that community is in the eastern United States, is not the county seat, and is located 25 miles from the next closest community, it would be widely considered rural and its culture would likely be akin to that of surrounding rural areas.

But if that 850-person town is the county seat (especially if it is located in the South), it is likely the county’s economic and political powerhouse, able to dominate smaller, more rural communities.

In parts of the West, a town of 850 might be the bustling commercial center for a territory covering hundreds of square miles. This Western town and its county seat cousin back East might have more in common culturally with much larger, more urban places than with surrounding rural areas. In this sense culture is partly a function of context.

There are other aspects of the question of what’s rural? based on the access a community, or its institutions, has to basic amenities. For example, a “distant” town of 20,000 can usually get good broadband and cell access. In that sense it is pretty urban and very different from a rural area with no high-speed access and little hope of attracting commercial investment. Rural grants and loans for telecommunications insfrastructure are more properly targeted to the most rural places.

But that same community’s hospital might have much more in common — in terms of resources and services — with small rural clinics than it does with most urban and suburban hospitals. In terms of health care, the region’s residents are likely to be best served if the hospital has access to resources and supports targeted to rural places and their needs.

Sparse, distant, small, diverse: rural characteristics that matter

Rural and urban are dimensional concepts that exist along multiple continuums incorporating size, density, isolation, culture, and function. This complexity only underscores the necessity of understanding and accounting for rural within the context of specific public policies.

There are, fortunately, ways to get a handle on the complexity. Rural places, in all their variety, are characterized by a combination of low population density (sparseness), isolation (distance from an urban center), and small size (total population). They are also highly diverse.

These characteristics shape rural-specific challenges and assets. For example, sparseness contributes to lagging telecommunications infrastructure and poor access to health care and social services across rural America. Distance is one contributor to undiversified, low-wage local economies as well as comparatively low levels of education among rural adults, in part, because colleges and large labor markets are beyond commuting distance. Small size (low total population) can be a cost factor because operational costs are spread over fewer individuals. Rural is also characterized by concentrated poverty in dispersed locales.

On the other hand, these same characteristics are assets that can be leveraged in thoughtful public policy as well. For example, sparseness means each individual is more likely to be needed in her community. Small size means that individuals can more easily be known and feel a sense of belonging — factors that are strongly associated with higher achievement and graduation rates. Investments and adaptations to make the most of rural assets can go a long way toward offsetting some of the challenges. For example, effective technology can often dramatically reduce costs associated with distance and scale.

In upcoming issues of RPM, we will look at what the characteristics of population sparseness, distance, small size, concentrated poverty, and diversity mean for public policy at the state, federal, and local levels.

Stay tuned for more policy fun.

Read more:

What is Rural? USDA Economic Research Service. This site helps clarify the different purposes of Census Bureau and OMB definitions:

State-by-state maps and other information: 

A compendium of resources devoted to the question “What is Rural?”

Another good overview of issues involved in defining rural:

This Issue Brief provides both overview and specific characteristics of a variety of definitions of rural:

The RPM series, Why Policy Matters, explores the importance of policy in shaping what is possible in school:

Why Policy Matters, Part 1: The Rules We Play By

Why Policy Matters, Part 2: Who Makes the Rules?

Why Policy Matters, Part 3: Citizen Action and Research

Why Policy Matters, Part 4: Legal Interventions


Read more from the November 2013 Rural Policy Matters.