A group of researchers, service organizations, and nonprofit leaders are organizing a national campaign to urge the Office of Management and Budget to delay redefining Metropolitan Statistical Areas, the county categorization system that underlies many rural-focused federal programs.

The change would increase the minimum population of cities that constitute the core of Metropolitan Statistical Areas from 50,000 to 100,000. The proposal, which is open for comments through Friday, March 19, would result in reclassification of about 140 metropolitan areas as nonmetropolitan, affecting about 250 counties with 18 million residents, according to an OMB estimate based on 2010 Census data.

The OMB Federal Register announcement about the proposal says the changes are only statistical and that federal agencies should not use the OMB county classification system to determine program and funding eligibility. Nevertheless, the definition is one of the most popular ways to delineate rural and urban counties for federal agencies.

The campaign is asking groups to sign a joint letter that raises concerns about the impact of the proposed change.

“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 program administration,” the letter says.

The letter says that increasing the number of nonmetropolitan counties could increase competition for scarce rural funding. “Widening this pool of ‘nonmetro’ communities would likely result in the current remote and distressed towns with very small populations competing with an even larger number of well-resourced former metropolitans for scarce federal funds,” the letter states.

The campaign is being organized by Aspen Institute’s Community Strategies Group and Tony Pipa, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The Metropolitan Statistical Area system has been in use about 70 years. OMB’s predecessor agency enacted the definition to standardize the way federal agencies report economic and population data. Before the system was created, federal agencies used different criteria to define cities and metropolitan areas, making cross-agency comparisons difficult. Over time, the definition has moved beyond statistical uses and has been adapted in other ways by multiple federal agencies.

The sign-on letter says OMB should take a comprehensive look at the metropolitan definition, instead of changing just the population criterion. That would give the agency the opportunity to review the non-statistical consequences of any changes.

“We strongly recommend undertaking a process that considers changes to the definition holistically – looking at density, commuting patterns, size, and regional economies as an integrated whole – through a robust, consultative, scientifically sound process that involves external researchers and practitioners to illuminate the full scope of potential consequences for rural communities and rural-urban regions,” the letter says.

Groups have until Tuesday, March 16, to sign the letter. The campaign is also urging organizations to file their own comments with OMB.

The Housing Assistance Council will hold an online informational session on the proposed change at 2 p.m., Tuesday, March 9. (Register here.) 

OMB published its proposed change in the Federal Register on January 19, the last full day of the Trump administration. The metropolitan definition is an administrative matter and does not require publication in the Federal Register or public comments, according to a document provided by the Brookings Institution. 

OMB has not commented on the proposal in response to several inquiries from the Daily Yonder to OMB staff. The agency currently does not have a permanent director or a chief statistician. 

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