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If you ask us what we do at the Daily Yonder, we’ll tell you that we provide news, commentary, and analysis about and for rural America. But if you ask us what exactly we mean by “rural America,” you may have us beat.  

Tim Marema, the editor of the Daily Yonder, compares defining “rural” with taking a Rorschach test. It means something different to everyone, and our definitions reveal more about our individual perceptions than they do about a universal meaning of “rural.” 

The simple reason for that  may be that no single and universal definition of rural exists. But the difficulty of defining “rural America” doesn’t make it any less important. “Rural” is a categorization that affects the way that governments implement policies, what resources are available for healthcare and infrastructure, how communities and individuals see themselves, and so much more. So even though we’re not likely to arrive at one answer, we believe the question, “What is rural?” is one worth asking. 

The federal government can’t agree on just one definition. For example, the Census Bureau, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy each use different metrics and categories in their attempts to define rural. They define rural as “not urban” or “not metropolitan,” which itself is defined as having concentrations of 2,500 or more people, 10,000 or more people, and 50,000 or more people, depending on the source and the context. These definitions use a range of other factors – like population density and economic activity – to define rural. 

Digging Deeper – Our Take

These statistical tools are one way for government agencies and researchers to set a working definition,  but they don’t reflect the way most of us think about rural day to day. So the staff of the Daily Yonder and its parent organization, the Center for Rural Strategies, decided to take a stab at the Rorschach test, and asked ourselves “what is rural?” 

For some, rural is defined by the community. Teresa Collins, the operations coordinator at the Center for Rural Strategies,  says that rural is “walking to the post office every morning to visit your neighbors and learn the latest news and gossip.” Isabelle Lee, a Daily Yonder reporting fellow, thinks of “neighbors being great friends, and local politicians knowing their constituents on a first-name basis.” 

The land itself also plays a role. Whitney Coe, coordinator of the Rural Assembly and director of national programs at Rural Strategies, defines rural as “staying within sight and sound of each other and the land.” According to Mary Sketch, a program associate at Rural Strategies, “people say it’s not where you are, it’s who you’re with. But with rural, it’s where you are and who you’re with.” 

Another way to define rural is based on our common experiences. To Marty Newell, the chief operating officer of Rural Strategies, “rural is rain on a tin roof and hoping that the power doesn’t go out.” Whitney adds that “rural is making it work.” 

For me, rural is getting on a highway to go to the grocery store, or just about anywhere else. 

Daily Yonder Publisher and Rural Strategies President Dee Davis chose to apply the same standard that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used in a 1964 court case about obscenity. Davis says he knows rural when he sees it. 

Your Turn – What’s Your Take

We want to find out what rural means to you. Whether  it’s analytical and wonky, or cultural and from the heart, we welcome your contributions. Here are a few ways you can participate: 

  • Leave your comment at the bottom of this article or send your contribution via email using the form below.
  • Submit a short video (30 seconds or less) to the Rural Assembly. Tell us who you are, where you’re from, and what rural means to you.  
  • Post to social media using the hashtag #WhatIsRural, and feel free to tag the Daily Yonder too. You’ll find us on Twitter under @DailyYonder and on Facebook as The Daily Yonder.

We’re excited to share some of your responses in future articles as we continue to understand and define the rural identity we all share.