After overwhelming public opposition, the federal Office of Management and Budget has backed away from a plan to change the way it defines metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties.

The proposal would have raised the minimum core-city size for a Metropolitan Statistical Area from 50,000 to 100,000 residents. The change would have reclassified 251 currently metropolitan counties as nonmetropolitan, based on current population figures. The affected counties contain a combined population of about 18 million. The change would have raised the nation’s nonmetropolitan population from about 46 million to 64 million.

Although the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) says its county-classification system is designed only for statistical purposes, the metropolitan/nonmetropolitan county designation is incorporated into an undetermined number of federal funding programs. Also, publications like the Daily Yonder use the county classification as a surrogate definition for rural. Even the venerable USDA Economic Research Service uses the nonmetropolitan classification as the starting point for much of its research on rural conditions.

The proposal to change the Metropolitan Statistical Area definition led to a national campaign to urge the OMB to abandon the change. The campaign helped prompt 734 comments on the measure. Ninety-seven percent of those comments opposed the redefinition.

The OMB’s inter-agency standards review committee subsequently withdrew its support for raising the population threshold for core-cities of Metropolitan Statistical Areas. The committee recommends a “delaying action” on the change and says there should be additional research and analysis on the issue.

Most of the comments on the proposed change cited the impact the redefinition could have on federal funding for rural and urban programs, the OMB document states. But OMB did not consider those concerns in its decision. “OMB establishes and maintains these [metropolitan and micropolitan] areas solely for statistical purposes,” the document states. “In reviewing and revising these areas, OMB does not take into account, or attempt to anticipate, any public or private sector nonstatistical uses of the delineations.”

The sign-on letter for the national campaign that opposed the redefinition of metropolitan areas said OMB needs to be more realistic about how federal agencies use the definitions.

“The proposed change to the MSA standards would not just be ‘statistical’ – it would have both financial and capacity consequences for rural places,” according to the sign-on letter. “Despite OMB’s insistence to the contrary, federal programs often use the OMB standards to inform definitions of ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ that influence eligibility requirements, allocation formulas, scoring criteria, and several other dimensions of [federal] program administration.”

In a press release, OMB said it would continue to study the metropolitan definition. A primary reason for raising the population threshold of core cities from 50,000 to 100,000 is that the definition has not kept pace with growth in the U.S. population, the press release states.

Five other small changes in the metropolitan classification system were enacted. These include eliminating special statistical areas used in New England, maintaining the use of commuting as a way to determine which outlying counties are part of a metropolitan area, making new provisions for how Puerto Rico is integrated into the county classification system, and other administrative matters.

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