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And Just Like That, America Becomes More Rural -- WSJ

The Wall Street Journal · 01/06/2023 05:30

By Josh Zumbrun

With so much attention on the U.S.'s urban-rural divide, you might soon hear that the rural population in 2020 was much larger than in 2010.

That isn't because people moved en masse to the country during the pandemic. It's because the U.S. Census Bureau is updating its definition of an urban area, from one with 2,500 people to one with 5,000. That reclassified 4.2 million people, living in 1,140 areas of the U.S., from urban to rural.

This has real-world consequences: Access to many federal and state programs is based on whether an area is defined as rural or urban.

But it also presents an opportunity to take stock of how rural has been defined, and whether the definition really matches what people think.

"People's perception of the norm for urban vs. rural can be very different than the government's definition," said Claire McKay Bowen, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute, a think tank.

When people think of urban areas, the images that spring to mind are probably of skyscrapers, buses, heavy traffic, bright lights, hospital systems and crowds of pedestrians, or of urban sprawl: the miles of subdivided suburbs and strip malls.

They don't think of a town such as Salmon, Idaho, where Dr. Bowen grew up, with a population of just over 3,000. It is the county seat of Lemhi County, which is the size of Connecticut but with a population of under 10,000. School sports events were typically a 2 1/2 -hour drive -- each way -- for visiting teams. It is a five-hour drive to Boise.

Yet for over a century, the Census Bureau has tabulated numerous small towns like this as urban areas. (Rural areas are simply those that aren't urban.)

It first calculated the urban population in 1874, in a "Statistical Atlas of the United States." It was producing maps based off the 1870 Census and wanted to portray any cities of more than 8,000 as dots, then shade the remainder of counties to convey the density of the rural population.

As a supplement for the map, the bureau calculated the population of all the dots and labeled it the "urban population." In early years, the population threshold for the dots moved around, but by 1906, the Census Bureau had settled upon 2,500 as the cutoff between urban and rural. In other words, the most widely used definition of urban didn't result from any dedicated analysis but just someone attempting to create some cool graphics and tables.

As the country grew, the Census Bureau focused on measuring suburbs, small municipalities on the outskirts of larger cities that it includes in a city's urban area.

Even as some urban areas became enormous -- 19 million people in New York and its environs; 12 million in and around Los Angeles -- the cutoff for urban areas remained 2,500.

With the new definition, the rural population was 66.6 million across U.S. states and territories, or 20% of the total in 2020, compared with 18.7% under the old definition. If the old definition had remained in place, and the 4.2 million Americans reclassified as rural had instead remained urban, then the rural share of the population would have shrunk slightly, from 19.3% in 2010 to 18.7% in 2020.

Whether an area is classified as urban or rural can affect funding for healthcare, broadband development, transportation and so on. Some government agencies follow the Census Bureau's classification, such as the Rural Health Clinic program. Others develop their own criteria. The Office of Management and Budget classifies entire counties as either metropolitan or nonmetropolitan based on proximity to a major city.

In a written statement, the Census Bureau said that its previous threshold was "the lowest in use among all federal agencies. We see the change in our minimum threshold as signifying that the Census Bureau is listening to stakeholders and feedback from other agencies and is matching the way others have characterized and classified settlement in the United States."

Places with population just over 5,000 (or with over 2,000 housing units; another way to qualify) are still clearly small-town, not big-city, America. If they are culturally, economically and geographically more similar to sparser rural than denser urban areas, perhaps the threshold is still too low.

The Census Bureau originally proposed a threshold of 10,000 people (or 4,000 housing units), which would have reclassified an additional 939 areas with 5.7 million people as rural. It ended up using the more modest change to minimize disruption to the many programs that depend on Census definitions.

The World Bank has promoted an international standard that defines cities as having more than 50,000 people. Using this rule would put a total of 95 million Americans outside of cities -- approaching 30% of the population.

There's no question most Americans live in and around the major cities; over half live in the 72 largest. But the official rural population count has long been held down by an arbitrary definition. The country is more rural and small-town than we think.

Write to Josh Zumbrun at josh.zumbrun@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 06, 2023 05:30 ET (10:30 GMT)

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