Definitions matter in public policy. Too often, policy debates suffer when terms get lost in ambiguity. A prime example of this phenomenon is the word “rural.”

For some, rural might evoke images of golden fields against a clear blue sky. More prosaically, rural might be places that have a Cracker Barrel instead of a Whole Foods. Depending on whom you ask, the term rural holds many different definitions.

The “Whole Foods vs. Cracker Barrel” comparison following the 2016 election. Donald Trump won over three-quarters of the counties with a Cracker Barrel, as opposed to 22 percent of those with a Whole Foods in 2016. To some, this 54 percent voting gap expressed the cultural and economic divides between rural and urban America. (Source: Twitter/Dave Wasserman)

The difference of opinion also holds true at all levels of government. For instance, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses a different definition of rural from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Confusingly, the U.S. Census Bureau has a different definition from both. The issue is further compounded by various universities and private-sector businesses using different rural definitions.

Sound public policy requires precision with language and intent. Honest confusion surrounding the definition of rural makes policy research more difficult and legislative action more challenging. Federal agencies, state offices, and philanthropic organizations should make an incremental yet important shift to specify what definition of rural they are using when providing grants and subsidies. Over time, a greater sense of uniformity over rural would emerge if they can reach a consensus.

Sorting the different definitions of rural

Over the years, numerous federal and state-level definitions were created for numerous programs and regulatory needs. Nevertheless, there are three federal agencies whose definitions have the widest use among researchers and government officials: the Census Bureau, the OMB, and the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Three federal agencies’ definitions for rural are the most widely used among researchers and government officials. Depending on the description used, the rural demographic ranges from 16.6 to 19.3 percent of the population. Sources: Rural Health Information Hub, 2010 Census Urban and Rural Classification and Urban Area Criteria. Urban, Urbanized Area, Urban Cluster, Rural Population, 2010 and 2000: United States., U.S. Census Bureau; 2010 Rural-Urban Commuting Area Codes, USDA-ERS; Urban Influence Codes, Documentation, 2013, USDA-ERS. Table: Mark Dornauer

Some definitions of rural are broad—e.g., what is leftover after urban is defined—and others are more specific. Several government agencies and academic research centers have created detailed and nuanced definitions of rural to inform rural-specific research, policies, and programs. These various definitions permit flexibility, which allows researchers and policymakers to select from varying degrees of rurality.

More definitions, more problems

The main benefit of the flexibility of the term rural is that it can be adapted to various needs of specific tribal regions, states, and localities. From a policy perspective, definitional flexibility allows state and federal governments to adopt policies and regulations for different rural places across the nation, including Alaskan mountain areas, the Tennessee River Valley, the Mississippi Delta, and central Pennsylvania.

For years, the federal government has classified areas and population metrics for statistical purposes to target national and state funds. Federal agencies created definitions to facilitate the goals of various government programs and subsidies since no single definition clearly divided rural and urban geographies. Even if these temporary definitions were meant for a specific program or subsidy in the past, these terms eventually became permanent over time as more agencies structured funding around previously accepted definitions. However, with definitional flexibility came the ability to fund more research grants from the government and other charitable organizations.

While flexibility allows government agencies and philanthropic organizations to adopt the term rural to their desired definition, it also causes confusion for areas that qualify as rural in one definition but not another. Researchers may read different numbers for the same statistic and wonder which is correct for their needs. This confusion also affects rural organizations like hospitals, churches, civic centers, and small businesses that qualify for one rural subsidy but not another.

Two examples illustrate this problem:

1.) The OMB classifies rural areas as having fewer than 50,000 residents. Suppose a large county of several thousand square miles holds a population greater than 50,000 in its borders, thus classifying it as a metropolitan county. There may be towns or small cities in this metropolitan area that would be individually classified as rural by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy. Thus, this metropolitan county would comprise several rural areas that share more similarities to a rural lifestyle and economy. Such large counties with several rural areas are common in the American Midwest and West.

2.) The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) use a definition of rural based on the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy’s use of “urbanized areas” and “urbanized clusters” adopted by the Census Bureau for Rural Health Clinic (RHC) determinations. (For clarification, please see the table above). Confusingly, the Office of Rural Health Policy uses the USDA’s “rural-urban commuting areas” (RUCA) methodology to determine rural areas of census tracts within counties. Thus, CMS could identify RHCs in an area that the Office of Rural Health Policy recognizes as urban.

2020 Census data won’t change the various definitions of rural

The 2020 Census offered an imperfect snapshot of the American population in 2020. During COVID, numerous undercounts likely occurred among rural citizens, who are less apt or aware of the need to submit their information online to the Census Bureau.

However, in March 2022, the Census Bureau announced changes regarding how urban will be defined. Notably, urban areas will no longer be distinguished between urbanized areas and urbanized clusters. Instead, regions will be designated as urban areas through the housing unit density metric: the number housing units per square mile. Consequently, urban areas will be defined as areas with at least 425 housing units per square mile. The Census Bureau plans to release updated lists and maps of urban areas using this new definition and 2020 Census data in December 2022.

The need for consensus

Precise definitions matter in public policy. Too often, policy debates suffer when opposing sides talk past one another because definitions get lost in ambiguity. Admittedly, examining the federal government’s multiple definitions for the word rural is a debate that mostly concerns academic researchers and D.C. policy wonks.

But the definition of rural matters when small-town hospitals get excluded from federal funding because one definition lists them as urban and another as rural. Similarly, it matters when one town qualifies for rural broadband expansion but a neighboring one does not simply because that town is located in a large county with an urban center miles away. When definitions contradict one another, small-town communities lose out on federal benefits and their chance to improve the lives of their most vulnerable members.