What’s Rural?

There’s no good answer to the question, “What’s rural?” —not even here at The Daily Yonder . We all think we know a rural place when we see it. But nobody has a definition of rural America that makes sense across all 50 states and more than 3100 counties. So when we report here on campaign contributions from rural counties, readers deserve an explanation of what we mean by “rural.”

The Yonder, with the guidance of Athens, Ohio, geographer Tim Murphy, is using its own definition of rural. I’ll explain that in a second, but first it might help to have a little background on how fouled up the definition of rural has become.

A 4-H member in Illinois

Most studies of rural America use government designations of metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties. The federal Office of Management and Budget deems a county urban if it has a city with 50,000 or more people. Also, if a quarter of the workforce of a county commutes to a metropolitan area, then that county, too, is

A 4-H member with her chicken near Springfield, Illinois
Photo by Shawn Poynter

included in a metro area. Everything else is nonmetropolitan — which has become a shorthand for rural. Rural is what’s left. It’s a half-baked definition that can have surprising results. For instance, the Grand Canyon is in a “metropolitan” area, according to the federal government. Economist Andrew Isserman points out that, according to this standard definition of rural and urban, more than a million farmers live in a “city” and there are 95 counties designated as “metropolitan” but have no — zero, zilch! — residents who live in an urban setting. Despite these contradictions, almost every time you read about a poll of rural Americans, or rural poverty, or voting in rural America, the standard used is the metro and nonmetro designation of counties — the one that counts the Grand Canyon as equivalent to the Bronx.

According to this definition, 2,048 counties and 50.8 million Americans are rural.

This is NOT the way we defined rural for the study of campaign contributions. Murphy devised a hybrid system that expands the number of rural counties to 2,638 out of 3,141. Under the Yonder definition, 73 million people (26 percent of the population) live in rural America.

Murphy started with the base of 2,048 counties designated nonmetropolitan by the OMB. Then he added counties that Isserman found to have a “rural character” and counties that had a majority of people living rural areas. Finally, Murphy used a new measure of counties, the Index of Relative Rurality (IRR), which employs a variety of measures (population density, for example, as well as distance from an urban center) to devise a scale going from the most urban county to the most rural. Kings County, otherwise known as Brooklyn, is the most urban county in America. Daniels County, Montana, population 1,844, is the most rural. Using the IRR, Murphy added another 282 counties to the rural category. In Murphy’s list, La Port County, Indiana and Bowie County, Texas, are the least rural of the rural counties; Lake County, Florida, Horry County, South Carolina, are the least urban of the urban counties.

No one system of defining rural is going to be satisfactory. The Yonder definition is more inclusive than the increasingly restrictive system established by the OMB and the U.S. Census. The expanded definition of rural the Yonder is using in this study includes more exurban counties — places where many residents commute to nearby cities to work but where there is still a sizeable amount of undeveloped land and where population densities are still low. Examples: Bastrop and Hays counties outside of Austin; Scott County outside of Minneapolis; Clark County outside Lexington, Kentucky. All of these counties are “urban” under OMB definitions, but they are rural according to the Yonder.

In the Yonder’s system, a few counties that were considered outright metropolitan by the federal government have been included as rural. Flagstaff, Arizona (home of the Grand Canyon) becomes rural. So do Dothan, Alabama; Hickory, North Carolina; Florence, South Carolina; Duluth, Minnesota; Jackson, Michigan; Alexandria, Louisiana; Prescott, Arizona; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Bowling Green, Kentucky — all “cities” by official definition, but ones somewhat isolated from larger urban centers and in counties with large rural populations.

We’ll open a forum topic for this question: What makes a place rural? How do you know when you’re in a rural community? Where’s the dividing line between what’s rural and what isn’t? How do you know when you’re over Yonder?

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