Full-page version of the map.

A proposal to change how the federal government classifies metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties could have big implications for rural America.

So big, in fact, that not even the Congressional Research Service – an agency with 600 staff and an annual budget of more than $100 million — can easily quantify the impact. 

In January the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) published a proposed change in how it defines metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties. Federal agencies, researchers, and publications like the Daily Yonder frequently use the nonmetropolitan definition as a basis for determining which counties are rural.  

The proposed revision in the OMB system would move 255 counties from metropolitan to nonmetropolitan status, enlarging nonmetropolitan America by 18 million residents. The new definition would require counties to have a city of at least 100,000 residents to qualify as a core metropolitan county. The current threshold is 50,000 residents. (See related story.)

OMB is accepting comments on the proposed change through Friday, March 19. About 70 comments have been filed so far, and most express concern about how the change might affect federal funding for local governments. 

The 2014 Congressional Research Service Report

This is not a new issue. In 2014 the Congressional Research Service investigated the impact of county reclassifications. This occurred shortly after OMB made routine changes in its list of Metropolitan Statistical Areas. 

The Congressional Research Service’s review resulted in a 12-page report chock full of information on the OMB county classification system. But the document doesn’t answer the central question of how reclassification might affect federal funding for a local government. 

It turns out that gauging the impact of reclassifying metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties is no small task. There is no list of agencies that use the OMB definitions in their funding eligibility. And even if such a list existed, researchers would still need to dig deeper to find out exactly how much funding might be affected by changes in metropolitan-nonmetropolitan status, the report states.

“No direct procedure exists for calculating precisely the amount of money distributed through all federal grant programs that use metropolitan area designation, or for determining how changes in the delineations of specific jurisdictions affect the total funding allocated to them,” the report says.

Concerns about Federal Funding Eligibility

In the comments that have been filed with OMB so far, the most common type is from representatives of metropolitan counties who are concerned that the shift to nonmetropolitan status will eliminate federal funding and planning programs. 

With no definitive source of information about which federal programs use the OMB metropolitan classification system to determine funding eligibility, however, local governments would have to dig through multiple guidelines to determine how they might be affected.

For example, the Community Development Block Grants program uses metropolitan designation to determine which communities receive funding as an entitlement, according to a Housing and Urban Development webpage. (Entitlement means the funding is granted as a matter of course and is not allocated competitively.) Nonmetropolitan counties can still get CBDG funds, but they have to apply through their states and compete for a smaller pool of money, according to a Brookings Institution report.

On the other hand, participation in a Metropolitan Planning Organization, which brings local governments together for transportation planning, appears to be based on the size of a city (50,000 residents and up), not metropolitan status. That means a city’s eligibility for a Metropolitan Planning Organization would continue, whether the city was part of a metropolitan area or not.

Possible Good and Bad Results for Small Counties

Counties that are currently nonmetropolitan and will remain that way could still be affected by the proposed change, according to Fred Ullrich with the RUPRI Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis. That’s because increasing the number of nonmetropolitan counties might increase competition for grant programs that go to rural areas. 

“By changing how the pie is allocated, suddenly some places are going to get less pie than others,” Ullrich said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “The idea is now that I have a lot more nonmetropolitan counties, I will have a lot more people grabbing for that pie.”

The Brookings Institution report identified 93 “development-oriented” programs that focus exclusively on rural communities. 

Ullrich also said putting counties with larger populations in the category or nonmetropolitan could create inequities. “We’ve introduced this really bizarre imbalance now, because now I have nonmetropolitan counties with [urban areas of] 95,000 people in them and they’re competing for the same bit of pie that the nonmetropolitan county with 5,000 people,” he said. 



Keith Mueller, also with RUPRI, told the Daily Yonder that the proposed change could have some positive results, assuming agencies are able to reduce the impact the change might have on county-level funding. For one thing, the change would increase the nonmetropolitan population from about 46 million to 64 million. Adding 18 million residents to the nonmetropolitan population could give those counties a louder voice in policy discussions.

“It could well be that it gives those of us who were in the rural trenches, if you will, something more to work with,” he said. “So there’s probably more than two sides [to the proposal] … I can see some strong positive implications.”

Last year RUPRI issued a report on how to rethink rural definitions that affect healthcare policy. Mueller said the debate about the OMB reclassification proposal could be helpful if it prompts a closer look at the best way to group counties for federal programs and research.

Issues at the Office of Management and Budget

The proposal to change the definition of metropolitan counties came from a committee that advises OMB on its Metropolitan Statistical Area definitions. The committee is chaired by the Census Bureau and has representatives from USDA Economic Research Service plus federal bureaus that track statistics for economics, justice, labor, transportation, health, and income. 

OMB is currently without a permanent director. This week Neera Tanden withdrew from consideration to fill the post after her nomination stalled in the Senate.

OMB is housed within the executive office of the president and does not need approval from other agencies to change the metropolitan definition. OMB’s predecessor agency created the definition 70 years ago to standardize statistical reporting on cities.

The Daily Yonder reached out to OMB for comment. One question we asked is whether the agency is providing any guidance to metropolitan areas that might be affected by the change. We did not receive a response by press time. 

CLICK MAP TO ENLARGE. This map of the Metropolitan Statistical Areas that could be affected by the definition change was included in the Office of Management and Budget filing in the Federal Register. Comments on the changes will be accepted through Friday, March 19. (Office of Management and Budget Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Area Standards Review Committee)