Defining Rural America: The Consequences of How We Count

From the The Center on Rural Innovation (CORI)

There is a phrase often used in the world of rural development: “If you’ve seen one rural community, you’ve seen one rural community.”

It reflects the fact that the parts of our country referred to as rural America are a vast geography — stretching from coast to coast — made up of varied places with unique histories, landscapes, and peoples. This reality makes it extremely difficult to settle on a single set of characteristics that encapsulate rural America. Even the people who live in areas referred to as rural often disagree on what makes a place rural.

As we set off on this Rural Aperture Project, in which we will use data to help people see the opportunities, challenges, and inequities of rural places in a new light, we face the difficult task of defining rural America.

The challenges of definitions are felt by journalists, researchers, philanthropists, nonprofits, and governments who all rely on data to understand, make sense of, and make critical decisions about rural America and how resources are distributed. It can be tempting to shrug off the issue as too complicated to deal with, but doing so neglects the fact that the definitions we choose have real-world consequences — the ways that federal statistical agencies define rural have significant political and economic implications. Rural definitions affect the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding each year, and shape the way that companies, banks, and philanthropies view communities and make investment decisions.  We cannot separate the question of how rural America is defined from conversations around critical issues like education,  health, racial equity, and economic opportunity in the U.S.

The goal of this story is not to argue that any one definition is best, but to show how these definitions impact narratives about rural America, as well as outcomes on the ground. We approach the issue from two perspectives:

  • Demonstrating that using data based on different rural definitions can lead us to tell different stories about the state of rural America.
  • Exploring how differences in definitions can create confusion about who is and isn’t eligible for federal funding that targets rural areas.

We hope that those who use data on rural America to tell stories, conduct research, distribute resources, make investments, or develop policy do so with greater awareness about how their choices define who is and is not counted, and with greater awareness of the impact of those choices.

Read more