A proposal published in the Federal Register in the final hours of the Trump administration would enlarge the size of what is commonly referred to as rural America by changing the definition of Metropolitan Statistical Areas. The change has the potential to affect the way scholars, policy makers, and federal funding agencies address rural needs.

The proposal, posted on January 19, would raise the minimum population of cities that constitute the core of Metropolitan Statistical Areas from 50,000 to 100,000.

The change would eliminate 144 metropolitan areas from the Office of Management and Budget’s list of metro areas. It would reclassify the 251 counties in those metropolitan areas as nonmetropolitan. Those counties have a combined population of 18 million, meaning the nonmetropolitan U.S. population would expand from about 46 million to 64 million – a change of nearly 40%, at least on paper.

The potential impact of the change is complicated and multifaceted, according to the rural researchers the Daily Yonder contacted. None of the four researchers contacted knew about the change before it appeared in the Federal Register on January 19.

It’s unclear how seriously the new Biden administration will consider the proposal. The OMB was unable to comment over the weekend. (We will update this story if we learn more.)

If the proposal is approved, it wouldn’t go into effect until 2023.

The change would have “implications both for research and for the many federal programs that use metropolitan areas as the basis for program eligibility, reimbursement rates, etc.,” said Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, in an email to the Daily Yonder.

Johnson said he expects scholars and policy advocates to review the proposal carefully. “I suspect there will be a significant feedback from the research and policy communities on this proposed definitional change,” he said.

The deadline for comments is March 19.

How the Metro Definition Is Used on Rural Topics

Metropolitan Statistical Areas have been around for about 70 years. Over the years, federal agencies, scholars, and publications like the Daily Yonder have used the list of nonmetropolitan counties as one way to define rural areas. In some cases, federal agencies use the nonmetropolitan classification to determine whether counties are eligible for rural funding.

The OMB recommendation states that the metropolitan and nonmetropolitan definitions are not synonymous with urban and rural. And it states that federal agencies should not use the OMB system to determine funding eligibility.

Nevertheless, the consistency, longevity, and simplicity of the OMB system have meant that nonmetropolitan counties are frequently used as a surrogate for rural America in research, policy analysis, and federal funding. Even when agencies create more refined definitions of rural (for example, the USDA Economic Research Service’s Rural Urban Continuum Codes), they often use the OMB classification as a starting point. (The Daily Yonder typically defines rural as nonmetropolitan.)

Why Change the Definition?

The committee report to OMB contains only one reason for increasing the population threshold for metropolitan areas. The population of the U.S. has doubled since the metropolitan definition was establihsed. Therefore, the threshold for determining metropolitan areas should also double, the report states. The report contains no analysis of how the change in definitions would affect federal or private research or federal programs.

Since the OMB system was put in place, hundreds of formerly nonmetropolitan counties have “grown out” of their status and become metropolitan. A brief by the Carsey Institute published last year said that since 1970, 753 counties, with a population of 71 million, have changed from nonmetropolitan to metropolitan status.

But merely changing the definition to increase the size of nonmetropolitan America does not change underlying demographic issues in rural America. From 2011 to 2016, the size of the nonmetropolitan population declined in real terms, not because counties were reclassified from nonmetropolitan to metropolitan.

The scholars the Daily Yonder contacted weren’t prepared to comment on whether the change would be good or bad for rural America. All the researchers said the change would have complex effects.

On one hand, adding counties and population could strengthen the ability of less populated counties to advocate for policy change and funding. On the other, it could dilute the impact of rural programs and potentially reduce funding on a per capita basis. Metropolitan counties that are reclassified could also lose eligibility for metropolitan-only funding.

The committee report contains no analysis of potential impacts of the change.

The metropolitan areas that would be recategorized as nonmetropolitan would become Micropolitan Statistical Areas. Micropolitan areas are currently built around cities with a population of 10,000 to 49,999. The new definition would change that population range to 10,000 to 99,999.