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What is Rural? Frequently Asked Questions


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

For grant programs supported by the Federal Office of Rural Health a searchable database, the Rural Health Grants Eligibility Advisor, is available on the web to determine eligibility. This list identifies eligible areas based on 2010 Census data and represents the recent modification of the Goldsmith Modification. RAC's Am I Rural? service can be used to help determine whether a specific location is considered rural based on various definitions of rural. The Economic Research Service posts on their web site Rural-Urban Continuum Codes by county.


Are there additional places to contact regarding eligibility status?

Yes, see the List of Rural Counties And Designated Eligible Census Tracts in Metropolitan Counties. This is a list of counties identified by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as rural and a list of sub-county sections of metropolitan counties that through the Goldsmith Modification classification would be also be designated as rural.

Also, contact your state office of rural health (SORH) for information regarding eligibility. The National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health (NOSORH) publishes a SORH Directory on their website that is searchable by state. Another directory, the State Offices of Rural Health Directory and State Rural Health Associations, is available from the Health Resources and Services Administration's federal Office of Rural Health Policy.


Who has created the major definitions for rural and what are the principal differences between the three definitions created by these agencies?

There are three government agencies whose definitions of what is 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.
    • 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.
  • 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 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.
    • 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. 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 of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
    With the Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Service Administration's Office of Rural Health Policy, and the WWAMI Rural Health Research Center, University of Washington, collaborated to develop the Rural-Urban Commuting Area system (RUCAs). This method appears to be gaining in popularity by several government agencies for use in identifying rural areas in metro counties. This is a census tract-based classification scheme that utilizes the Bureau of Census urbanized area standard and place definitions in combination with commuting information to characterize rural and urban status of census tracts. There is also a ZIP code RUCA approximation. For a RUCA definition see the FAQ: What are RUCA codes? Another classification method is the Rural-Urban Continuum Codes to distinguish metropolitan counties by size and nonmetropolitan counties by their degree of urbanization and proximity to metropolitan areas.

For additional rural definitions related to health policy see, Choosing Rural Definitions: Implications for Health Policy.


Why do we need a definition and who uses them?

Rural is an inexact term that can mean different things to different people. For example, what is considered rural in a state with low population density, like Montana, may not resemble what is considered rural in a state with a much higher density, like Massachusetts. However, for specific purposes there is a need for exact definitions of what is meant by "rural."

One example of this need is determining eligibility for Federal rural grant programs. Even though the concept of rurality is elastic, 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.

Also, policy makers use definitions of rural for implementation of programs and or laws. Researchers and government agencies use definitions to conduct their studies and for statistical consistency, accuracy as well as validation.


Where do I find these definitions?

The definitions are available online:

For an overview of rural definitions related to health policy, see Choosing Rural Definitions: Implications for Health Policy.


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. For example, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) created the designation of metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas to provide nationally consistent definitions for collecting, tabulating, and publishing federal statistics for geographic areas. Though these definitions were not intended to be used for programmatic purposes, nonetheless they are.

Because no one definition clearly divides rural and urban entities, many definitions have been developed by different agencies for various purposes. All have strong and weak points, and are used by government agencies depending on which one best fits their programmatic goals. For selected socioeconomic indicators for each definition of rural, by State and the U.S. see the ERS Data Set, National and State Indicator Tables.


How do I know which definition I should use?

Different programs are frequently able to pick which definition of rural they will use. This is because Congress, if it decides to target a program towards rural areas, usually does not specify what they mean by rural. Program officials can then decide what definition works best for that specific program. Therefore, if the definition is not specified with the program announcement applicants must contact the granting agency to identify which definition for rural is acceptable in determining eligibility.


How do I find the current population of my geographic area (city, town, or county)?

The U.S. Census Bureau's American FactFinder can quickly provide population data for a given geographic area. Go to the Fact Sheet and use the geographic search tool. Enter the information requested to identify your area. The Fact Sheet will then provide you with the Census 2010 population for the specified geographic location.


How do I find demographic information about my geographic area?

The U.S. Census Bureau's American Factfinder can also retrieve general population characteristics as well as social, economic, and housing characteristics from the Census 2010 data. USDA -Economic Research Service State Fact Sheets provide information on population, employment, income, farm characteristics, farm financial indicators, and top commodities, exports, and counties for each state in the United States. You may also want to browse through the RAC's State Resources for additional demographic information.


What is the Goldsmith Modification?

The Goldsmith Modification was developed because of the need to identify small towns and rural areas within large metropolitan counties. Some of these communities were isolated from central areas with health services because of distance or other physical features. 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. 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 Bureau of Census 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. The Health Resources and Service Administration's Office of Rural Health Policy, the WWAMI Rural Research Center at the University of Washington and the USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) collaborated to create 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.

The ERS has an Excel file on its website whereby an applicant can link to a table of RUCA codes (2010) by state census tracts or all U.S. census tracts. A ZIP code approximation of RUCAs can be downloaded from the WWAMI Rural Research Center - RUCA Data version 2.0. Some federal programs have identified areas with a RUCA code of four and above as nonmetropolitan. The Office of Rural Health Policy accepts the RUCA methodology in determining rural eligibility for their programs.


What is meant by Frontier?

Frontier is commonly defined as counties with a population density of six or fewer people per square mile, but like rural, there is no official definition of what "frontier" means. The definition is based on other factors such as travel distance in miles to the nearest medical facility and travel time to the nearest medical facility. For more information about the Frontier designation please see RAC's Frontier topic guide.