Key to evaluating the impacts of policy on rural people and places is an understanding of how rural is defined. Though seemingly a simple question, the answer to “what is rural” is not so easy. “Rural” is defined in different ways depending on who is defining it. Officially the term “rural” is a definition of exclusion - anything not defined as urban is by default rural. The Census Bureau defines urban as densely settled territory at the census block group level. Though sub-county geography would be ideal for doing research, we are often only able to do analysis with data at the county level. The county level designations of metropolitan and nonmetropolitan are based on the size of cities within the counties and commuting ties with surrounding counties. The terms metropolitan and nonmetropolitan are often used interchangeably with urban and rural, but the fact is that metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties contain both urban and rural territory. Metropolitan counties contain rural populations and nonmetropolitan counties contain urban populations. In fact, half of our nation’s rural people reside in metropolitan counties.
The following materials are focused on the issue of defining rural:
Overview presentation of rural definitions and their implications
Kathleen Miller, RUPRI Program Director
Micropolitan Areas Overview
Urban-Rural and CBSAs
Brief from the RUPRI Rural Health Panel:
Choosing Rural Definitions: Implications for Health Policy
For more information on this topic, visit the following sites from the Rural Assistance Center:
Information Guide “What is Rural?”
Provides a comprehensive summary of various definitions of rural used in federal programs.
Am I Rural? Service
An interactive application that determines whether a specific location is considered rural based on various definitions.
Other sources of information on defining rural:
The Economic Research Service, USDA, briefing room on Measuring Rurality
U.S. Census Bureau definitions of Urban and Rural Areas
U.S. Census Bureau information on Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas