How Does Our Government Define 'Rural'?

There are so many official definitions for rural that a person can readily find confirmation that poverty rates are higher or lower in rural areas, depending on which definition one uses. Ashley Jochim and I came across this variation often in our research.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service estimated rural poverty at 16.9 percent and nonrural poverty at 13.6 percent nationwide for 2016, while the U.S. Census estimated roughly inverse numbers with rural poverty at 13.3 percent and urban poverty at 16 percent.

The differing numbers are understandable because federal agencies set different thresholds for population size and density as well as patterns of land use and distance from major urban centers when determining rurality. This creates confusion with respect to statistical estimates but also with regards to determining eligibility for rural aid. (See The Washington Post’s fuller explanation in 2013.)

In elementary and secondary education, just over nine million students attend schools in rural areas, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Many people who live in what are classified as towns probably self-identify as residing in a rural area, and under some other federal definitions, they would even be classified as such.

That broader sense of belonging to a rural community is discussed at length in “The Power of Place: Rural Identity and the Politics of Rural School Reform,” a chapter Jochim and I contributed to a book being published this fall, No Longer Forgotten: The Triumphs and Struggles of Rural Education, edited by Michael Q. McShane and Andy Smarick (Rowman & Littlefield).