Later this year, some of the nation’s most economically successful “rural” counties will be reclassified as metropolitan, moving their populations and economic output from nonmetropolitan to metropolitan with the stroke of a pen.
That’s because 2023 is the year the federal Office of Management and Budget will create a major revision for its list of Metropolitan Statistical Areas based on data from the 2020 Census.
Because of how Metropolitan Statistical Areas are defined – using a combination of population figures and commuting patterns – the reclassification is likely to move some of the fastest growing and economically productive rural counties into the metropolitan category.
This gives a falsely bleak impression of rural America, according to scholars Daniel T. Lichter and Kenneth M. Johnson. The researchers from Cornell and the University of New Hampshire respectively, call this phenomenon “the paradox of rural population decline.”
“The demographic paradox is clear,” Lichter and Johnson write. “Over the past four decades, a significant share of nonmetro America’s fastest growing counties have been lost to metro reclassification, with population and economic growing accruing to America’s rapidly expanding universe of metro counties.”
During the reclassification in 2013, for example, the Office of Budget and Management (OMB) shifted 112 nonmetropolitan counties into the metropolitan column, moving 5.7 million residents into metro areas. These formerly nonmetropolitan counties met one of two criteria: 1) they gained enough population to have a central city of at least 50,000 residents, or 2) the proportion of the county’s workers who commuted into an adjoining metropolitan county grew past 25%. Change in commuting patterns is more commonly the cause of reclassification, according to Lichter and Johnson.
Counties that grow to meet these criteria tend to be doing better economically than other nonmetropolitan counties. So, Lichter and Johnson say, the growth results in reclassification, which results in a decline for the counties that remain nonmetropolitan.
What Is Rural?
Which counties are nonmetropolitan matters because it’s one of the most common ways that policy makers, federal agencies, and researchers use to define what we mean by “rural.”
You might think you know rural when you see it. When you think about rural places, maybe you picture an agrarian landscape. Or maybe an old growth forest in a remote wilderness comes to mind.
But what if you had to provide a clear definition? That’s where things get messy. Even geographers, demographers, and statisticians can’t agree on a single definition of rural.
Depending on which definition you use, rural Americans either comprise 46 million residents, or over 60 million residents. Rural populations are either growing or stagnating, economically vibrant or persistently poor, predominantly white or rapidly diversifying.
Federal agencies use over a dozen definitions of rural. But at their core, those definitions are generally variations on two predominant categorization systems — either the OMB’s Metropolitan Statistical Area or the Census definition, which is based primarily on population density and goes down to the census block level, meaning that parts of a county may be rural and other parts urban.
The Census Bureau uses the smallest scale at which we can measure rurality. The census block is about the size of a neighborhood block. The Census definitions, which were revised for the 2020 census, says census blocks with a population of 5,000 residents or 2,000 housing units are urban. Everywhere that is not urban is rural. Using the Census definition, these rural places can range anywhere from an uninhabited desert to a small community. (CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article used an outdated Census Bureau definition. This article has been corrected to reflect the 2020 Census definitions of urban and rural.)
In the OMB system, metropolitan areas are defined county by county, not down to the census block. The entire county is either metropolitan or it’s not, based on the size of a city in that county or commuting patterns. The 2013 OMB list has 1,165 metropolitan counties.
The OMB considers all other counties to be “nonmetropolitan.” It’s important to note that metropolitan is not synonymous with urban, nor nonmetropolitan with rural. In fact, OMB actively discourages federal agencies and researchers from using nonmetro as a proxy for rural.
But the ease of the system and its use of economic information like commuting patterns make it useful for a variety of purposes.
The Daily Yonder, for example, uses the OMB nonmetro definition as a proxy for rural in most of our analysis because it’s compatible with other monthly and annual datasets from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, USDA, and many, many more.
These data reports typically don’t go down to the census block level, so the Census definition of rural isn’t helpful in analyzing how urban and rural differences might be affecting social and economic conditions. So the Daily Yonder and many other organizations, public and private, frequently use the OMB nonmetropolitan county list as a stand-in definition for rural.
Rural Population Growth Paradox
Because the OMB’s metropolitan/nonmetropolitan system doesn’t rely exclusively on population sizes, and because it’s based on economic activity as well as settlement patterns, on a county-by-county basis, its categorization of counties can be counterintuitive at times. One example is Morgan County, Tennessee, a county of 21,000 on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau, about 30 miles or so west of Knoxville.
In 2013, the OMB classified Morgan County as a metropolitan county even though the Census reported that 99% of the population lived in rural areas. There’s no urban center within Morgan County; Wartburg, the county seat, has around 900 residents. Harriman has nearly 6,000, but most of that city is in adjoining Roane County.
What makes Morgan a metropolitan county is that more than a quarter of its workforce commutes into a metro area for employment. According to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, 1,205 individuals commute from Morgan County into neighboring Anderson County, which is home to Oak Ridge National Laboratory and is part of the Knoxville metro. Another 1,125 commute into Knox County, which has a population about about 500,000, including the city of Knoxville.
Hundreds of other counties face a similarly complicated relationship to adjacent metropolitan counties. According to the 2013 OMB list, in 232 metropolitan counties (as defined by the OMB) more than 70% of the population lives in a rural area (as defined by the Census).
From Nonmetro to Metro — and Back Again
When OMB updates its list of Metropolitan Statistical Areas later this year, some nonmetropolitan counties will become metropolitan. The reverse can also happen: formerly metropolitan counties can become nonmetropolitan if their central city loses population or a smaller percentage of workers commutes into a nearby metropolitan county. It’s usually a much smaller number of counties. In 2013, 36 counties switched from metropolitan to nonmetropolitan, removing 1 million residents from the metropolitan counties and adding them to the nonmetropolitan population.
Counties that make the switch to nonmetropolitan from metropolitan tend to be doing better economically than the counties that remain nonmetro. One of those counties was Rappahannock County, Virginia, that transitioned into a metropolitan county in 2013 because of commuting patterns.
The median household income in Rappahannock County was 73% higher than the nonmetropolitan median, according to 2021 estimates. In 2021, the estimated median income in Rappahannock County was $90,000 per year, compared to $52,000 in all nonmetropolitan counties. The population grew by 6% between 2000 and 2020, compared to 2.8% among all nonmetropolitan residents.
Beaufort County, South Carolina, switched from nonmetropolitan to metropolitan in 2013 and exhibits the same trend as Rappahannock County. In 2021, the estimated median household income was $74,000, 42% higher than the nonmetropolitan median. The population of Beaufort grew by 57% between 2000 and 2020, from 120,000 residents in 2000 to 195,600 in 2020.
In 2021, the median household income was $56,000 per year in the 112 counties that switched to metropolitan in 2013. That’s 8% higher than the nonmetropolitan median of $52,000.
Population growth was also much higher in these counties over the last decade. Between 2010 and 2020, the counties that switched to metropolitan grew by 6%, while growth in the rest of nonmetropolitan America stagnated.
When counties that have large rural populations are lumped into the metropolitan category, it can make rural America look poorer and smaller than it really is.
“We point to the long-term implications of this demographic winnowing process,” writes Johnson and Lichter, who suggest that reclassifying nonmetropolitan counties leaves behind the rural counties that are least likely to prosper or grow in the future.
Demographers stress the importance of considering how our definitions might obscure the truth about rural America.
“Is the widening gap in rural-urban mortality, for example, due wholly or in part to the transfer of growing, more affluent, and healthy counties (and people) from the nonmetro to metro side of the ledger, leaving behind declining, poorer, and less healthy nonmetro counties?” Johnson and Lichter write.
CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to reflect the current Census Bureau definitions of urban and rural. A previous version of this article used outdated definitions.