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What is Rural?

Rural is an inexact term that can mean different things to different people, organizations and governments. Trying to define what "rural" is, in a nation of diverse geography, can be a daunting task. However, for those concerned with rural healthcare and human services, that which constitutes rural must be precisely defined. Federal and state policymakers, as well as service providers and researchers, need a clearly stated definition that is current in its interpretation.

There are numerous federal and state-level definitions of rural that have been created over the years for various programs and regulatory needs. However, there are three federal government agencies whose definitions of what is rural are in widest use:

  • the U.S. Census Bureau
  • the Office of Management and Budget
  • the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

They and other organizations continue to strive for more detailed definitions to fit new programs as the demographics of the United States are constantly changing. The number of rural counties fluctuates over time, and discrepancies with old designations continually exist.

The need for a clearer definition of rural to meet the needs of new programs and policies has encouraged agencies to create more detailed definitions which permit additional flexibility in their use, such as allowing users to select from varying degrees of rurality. Agencies involved with rural health services will continue to adapt their definitions, striving to better serve the needs of the rural population.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do we need rural definitions and how are they used?

Rural definitions are very important for government functions related to rural policymaking, regulation, and program administration. Generally there is not one definition that fits all needs or programs. Each organization or agency selects the best definition that meets specific requirements for participation in their programs.

Examples of how they are used include:

  • Determining eligibility for Federal rural grant programs. Funding agencies and organizations have to draw a line somewhere, and communities on one side of that line are eligible while those on the other side are not.
  • Implementation of programs and laws that govern rural areas requires that policymakers, regulators, and administering agencies stipulate how rural will be defined.
  • Research and data collection requires statistical consistency and accuracy, as well as validation, by researchers and government agencies. Researchers must choose and consistently use a precise definition of rural.

There are three major definitions of “rural” that the Federal government currently uses, along with many variants that are also available. For additional information see Defining Rural Population and What Is Rural in the WWAMI States? Why Definitions Matter.

Who has created the major definitions of rural and what are the principal differences between these definitions?

There are three government agencies whose definitions of rural are in wide use: the U.S. Census Bureau, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

U.S. Census Bureau

Initially defines specific urban entities, defining rural by what is not urban. Designations related to rural/urban status include:

  • An Urbanized Area (UA) has an urban nucleus of 50,000 or more people. Individual cities with a population of 50,000 may or may not be contained in these UAs. Urbanized Areas have a core (one or more contiguous census block groups or BGs) with a total land area less than two square miles and a population density of 1,000 persons per square mile. They may contain adjoining territory with at minimum 500 persons per square mile and encompass a population of at least 50,000 people.
  • An Urban Cluster (UC) also has a core as identified above with a total land area of less than two square miles and a population density of 1,000 persons per square mile. They may contain adjoining territory with at minimum 500 persons per square mile and encompass a population of at least 2,500 but less than 50,000 persons.
  • The Census Bureau's classification of "rural" consists of all territory, population, and housing units located outside of UAs and UCs. The Bureau's definition is the only federal definition that applies the term "rural" in an official, statistical capacity, allowing it to be viewed as the official or default definition of rural.

For additional information about U.S. Census Bureau definitions for rural, see: Urban and Rural Definitions and Data.

Office of Management and Budget (OMB)

Defines metropolitan statistical areas, or metro areas, as central or core counties with one or more urbanized areas, and outlying counties that are economically tied to the core counties as measured by work commuting. Outlying counties are included in a metropolitan statistical area if 25 percent of workers living in the county commute to the central counties, or if 25 percent of the employment in the county consists of workers coming out from the central counties - the so-called "reverse" commuting pattern.

Nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) counties are outside the boundaries of metro areas and are further subdivided into two types:

  • Micropolitan statistical areas - micro areas - are any nonmetro county with an urban cluster of at least 10,000 persons or more. It is further defined as the central county of a micro area. As with metro areas, outlying counties are included if commuting to the central county is 25 percent or higher, or if 25 percent of the employment in the outlying county is made up of commuters from the central county.
  • The second type of nonmetro county is the noncore county.

For additional information about OMB definitions for rural, see: Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas.

ERS researchers and others who discuss conditions in "rural" America often refer to nonmetropolitan areas that include both micropolitan and noncore counties as rural areas.

Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA - ERS)

USDA-ERS and the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy collaborated to develop the Rural-Urban Commuting Area system (RUCAs). This method is gaining in popularity by several government agencies, particularly for use in identifying rural areas in metro counties. The Federal Office of Rural Health Policy uses the RUCA methodology in determining rural eligibility for their programs. For more about RUCAs, see the FAQ: What are RUCA codes? and Rural-Urban Commuting Area Codes (RUCAs).

Another classification method created and used by USDA-ERS is Rural-Urban Continuum Codes, which distinguish metropolitan counties by size and nonmetropolitan counties by their degree of urbanization and proximity to metropolitan areas.

The USDA Economic Research Service provides a narrative of several other Rural Classifications including the Rural-Urban Continuum Codes (RUCCs) and the Urban-Influence Codes (UICs). The Federal Office of Rural Health Policy uses a combination of the OMB’s Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas and USDA’s ERS’ Rural-Urban Commuting Area Codes to determine geographic eligibility for its grant programs.

Table 1. Comparison of Rural Definitions
    For each definition, using 2010 Census data
Definition & Agency Geographic Unit Used What is Included in "Rural" Rural Population
Urban and Rural Areas
U.S. Census Bureau

Urbanized Areas (UAs) are geographic areas of 50,000 or more people. Urban Clusters (UCs) are geographic areas of 2,500 to 50,000 people.
Census Blocks and Block Groups Rural areas encompass all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area. (Excludes P.R.) 59,492,267

Percent of Total Population:
Core Based Statistical Areas (Metropolitan, Micropolitan, & Nonmetropolitan statistical areas)
U.S. Office of Management & Budget

Metropolitan areas contain a core urban area population of 50,000 or more. Nonmetropolitan areas contain a population of less than 50,000. Micropolitan areas are urban clusters with populations 10,000 to 50,000.
County All non-metropolitan areas (counties) including micropolitan and noncore counties 46,293,406*

Percent of Total Population:
Rural-Urban Commuting Areas (RUCAs)
Economic Research Service

Utilizes the U.S. Census Bureau’s UAs and UCs definitions with information on work commuting. Classification delineates metropolitan, micropolitan, small town and rural commuting areas with whole numbers 1-10 and further subdivides into 21 secondary codes based on commuting flows - local or to another census tract.
Census Tract, ZIP Code approximation Primary RUCA codes 4 and above (Micropolitan Area Core, population up to 49,999) 51,112,552

Percent of Total Population:

*Data derived from USDA-ERS Urban Influence Codes that is derived from the Office of Management & Budget county-based metropolitan area definitions. County-based metropolitan area definitions have been used for New England (New England County Metropolitan Areas or NECMAs).

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

Why are there so many government definitions for rural?

Throughout history, the federal government has been classifying areas and population for statistical purposes and to target programs and funds. Federal agencies create and use definitions to facilitate their own programs because no one definition clearly divides rural and urban entities. Many definitions have been developed by different agencies for various purposes using different classifications. All have strong and weak points, and are used by government agencies depending on which one best fits their programmatic goals.

For example, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) created the designation of metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas to create consistency in data collection for geographic areas across the U.S. Though these definitions were not intended to be used for programmatic purposes, nonetheless they are.

For additional information on the different types of rural definitions used by the federal government see:  ERS Rural Definitions: Data Documentation and Methods, Why Definitions Matter: Rural Definitions and State Poverty Rankings, and for the different type of classifications used in rural definitions see: ERS: Rural Classifications.

How do I know which definition I should use?

There are many different circumstances in which an appropriate rural definition must be selected and used. Selecting an appropriate definition may vary depending on your role:

Grant applicants
Applicants for funding opportunities should use the rural definition specified in the funding announcement. If one is not specified, potential applicants should contact the funder to identify which definition is acceptable for determining eligibility. Some programs do not require rural status but may be interested in rurality as one factor illustrating need. In that case, consider which definition best fits the population or service area the program would address.

Funders and program administrators
When establishing funding or other programs for rural areas, organizations must either define rural themselves or choose an existing definition of rural to determine eligibility. When choosing an existing definition, organizations may wish to consider the ease of determining rural status under each definition, as well as which definition is a closest fit to the population the program is designed to serve. Some definitions rate rurality along a continuum, which gives programs flexibility to use a tighter or looser definition.

There are numerous considerations regarding defining rural in research studies. See: How do you select an appropriate rural definition for a research study? on RHIhub’s Conducting Rural Health Research, Needs Assessment, and Program Evaluation topic guide.

How do differing definitions contribute to confusion about rural places and populations?

While rural definitions are designed to precisely define what is rural, the fact that there are many definitions and that they differ often creates confusion. This confusion is particularly great for people who are not aware of the various definitions of rural. They may hear different numbers for the same rural statistic and wonder which one is correct, not realizing that they are both correct, but based on different definitions. When using rural statistics, it is important to understand which definitions were used to ensure that comparisons made are fair and appropriate.

Confusion can also occur for rural organizations when they qualify for one rural program but not another. Other times, organizations might know they fit within a federal rural definition and then are surprised to not qualify for a specific rural program. Examples of this type of confusion include:

  • A large county of several thousand square miles may have an urban center with a population greater than 50,000, within their boundary, that would classify them by the OMB definition as a metropolitan county. Metropolitan counties may not be eligible for some programs targeted to rural areas. However, there may be many areas within this same “metropolitan” county that would be classified as rural by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP) definition that uses a more site-specific census tract population within a county. These rural areas within a metropolitan county may be eligible for rural targeted programs.  Large counties with great expanses of rural areas are frequently found in the Midwest and the Western portion of the United States.
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) uses a definition that is based on Urbanized Areas (UAs) and Urbanized Clusters (UCs). Rural Health Clinics (RHCs) which receive enhanced reimbursement rates from CMS may not be located in a UA, but they may be located in a UC.  The FORHP uses a definition based on the RUCA method to define rural areas of Census Tracts within OMB Metropolitan or Non-metropolitan Counties. Therefore, because CMS and FORHP use different definitions of rural, RHCs could be located in an area identified as rural by CMS and identified as non-rural by the FORHP.
  • Another example of different definitions that may cause confusion are found in the eligibility requirements of programs sponsored by the USDA-Rural Development (USDA-RD). Their programs base eligibility on the total population of a city, town, or unincorporated area. Several programs have an eligibility limit of 50,000 people; however, there may be an additional restriction regarding proximity to a municipality greater than 50,000. Many of these programs are used for business development. The USDA-RD Community Facilities Loan and Grant program, a program that supports rural healthcare projects, uses a more restrictive definition of rural. The eligibility limit is a city, town, or an unincorporated area with a population that is 20,000 people or less. Other USDA-RD programs have an even greater restrictive definition that confines eligibility to those municipalities of 10,000 or less. See the USDA-RD Report on the Definitions of Rural for additional information.

How can I verify that my geographic area status is rural?

RHIhub’s Am I Rural? tool can be used to help determine whether a specific location is considered rural based on various definitions of rural, including those used by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy definitions, as eligibility criteria for federal programs. The information provided by this service addresses only the rural aspect of a program's requirements.

For additional information about accessing statistics and data regarding rurality and rural health see RHIhub’s Finding Statistics and Data Related to Rural Health topic guide.

What is the Goldsmith Modification?

In 1992, the Goldsmith Modification was created to recognize small towns and rural areas found in large metropolitan counties. Some of these communities had greater distances or physical features limiting access to health services. This variation expanded the eligibility for Rural Health Grant programs to assist isolated rural populations in large metropolitan counties. The Goldsmith Modification preceded the RUCA methodology and is referenced in many publications on rural definitions. For additional information about the Goldsmith Modification, see Improving the Operational Definition of "Rural Areas" for Federal Programs.

What are RUCA codes?

Rural-Urban Commuting Area codes, or RUCAs, are a Census tract-based classification scheme that utilizes the standard Census Bureau urban area and place definitions in combination with commuting information to characterize all of the nation's census tracts regarding their rural and urban status and relationships. In 1998, the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy located with the Health Resources and Services Administration, the WWAMI Rural Research Center at the University of Washington and the USDA's Economic Research Service collaborated to create the initial version of the RUCA system that classifies sub-county areas on a scale representing urbanization, population density, and daily commuting. RUCA codes represent the current version of the Goldsmith Modification.

Since their creation, the RUCA codes have been updated several times with new Census data. The most recent version of the codes were created by a collaboration between the USDA-ERS, FORHP, and the University of North Dakota Center for Rural Health. RUCA codes (2010) by state census tracts can be downloaded from the USDA-ERS website. A ZIP code approximation of RUCAs is available from the Center for Rural Health. Some federal programs have identified areas with a RUCA code of four and above as rural. The Federal Office of Rural Health Policy uses the RUCA methodology in determining rural eligibility for their programs.

What is meant by frontier?

Frontier areas are the most rural areas of the nation, which are sparsely populated and are isolated from population centers and services by distance or physical barriers. To learn about how frontier is defined, see the Frontier Areas Topic Guide.

Who can I contact regarding geographic eligibility for various federal programs?

For Geographic Eligibility for Rural Health Grant Programs
Steve Hirsch, Federal Office of Rural Health Policy
Telephone: 301.443.7322

For Geographic Eligibility for USDA - Rural Development Programs
Rural Development State Offices

Last Reviewed: 2/6/2015