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Defining Rural Population

Am I eligible for rural health funding?

People who live in areas that we define as rural are eligible to benefit from our programs. Use the Rural Health Grants Eligibility Analyzer.

How do you define rural?

The United States Census Bureau (Census) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) define rural areas. We use these definitions and Rural-Urban Commuting Area (RUCA) codes to create our own definition.

How does the Census define “rural”?

The Census does not define “rural.” They consider “rural” to include all people, housing, and territory that are not within an urban area. Any area that is not urban is rural.

The Census defines urban as:

  • Urbanized Areas (UAs) of 50,000 or more people
  • Urban Clusters (UCs) of 2,500 - 49,999 people

After the 2010 Census, they classified 19.3% of the population (59.5 million people) and 97% of the land area as rural.

How does OMB define rural?

OMB decides which counties are metropolitan (metro), micropolitan (micro), or neither.

Area or CountyRural or Not Rural
Metro area (urban core of 50,000 or more people)Not rural
Micro area (urban core of 10,000-49,999 people)Rural
Counties outside of Metro or Micro AreasRural

After the 2010 Census, the non-metro counties contained 46.2 million people, about 15% of the population and covered 72% of the land area of the country.

What challenges do the two definitions present?

The Census and OMB definitions present measurement challenges.

The Census overcounts the number of people in rural areas, while the OMB undercounts them.

  1. The Census definition:
    • Does not follow city or county boundaries, making it hard to determine if an area is urban or rural
    • Classifies many suburban areas as rural
  2. The OMB includes some rural areas in metropolitan counties.
    Example: The Grand Canyon is in a metro county.

How do we overcome these challenges?

We use Rural-Urban Commuting Area (RUCA) codes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA)’s Economic Research Service (ERS) creates these codes using U.S. Census data.

How many census tracts are there in the U.S.?

There are more than 70,000 tracts in the U.S.

Is it possible to identify rural tracts in metro counties?

We can identify rural census tracts in metro counties. Each census tract aligns with assigned RUCA codes.

We consider tracts inside metro counties with the codes 4-10 as rural.

Do RUCA codes work for larger tracts?

In larger tracts, you cannot use RUCA codes alone. The codes do not factor in distance to services and low numbers of people.

In response, we classified 132 large area census tracts with RUCA codes 2 or 3 as rural. These tracts are at least 400 square miles in area with no more than 35 people per square mile.

How can I find a complete list of rural areas?

Download our Data Files for lists of rural areas by county, census tract, and ZIP code.

How Do We Define Rural?

We define the following areas as rural:

  • All non-metro counties
  • All metro census tracts with RUCA codes 4-10 and
  • Large area Metro census tracts of at least 400 sq. miles in area with population density of 35 or less per sq. mile with RUCA codes 2-3.
  • Beginning with Fiscal Year 2022 Rural Health Grants, we consider all outlying metro counties without a UA to be rural.

For more detail on the addition of outlying metro counties, read the Federal Register Notice, Revised Geographic Eligibility for Federal Office of Rural Health Policy Grants. This change will go into effect in Fiscal Year (FY) 2022.

Based on 2010 Census data, 19.7% of the population (60.8 million people) and 86% of the land area of the country are considered rural.

What is the change?

We changed how we define rural. We updated the list of areas eligible for rural health funding.

Did you remove any areas?

No, we did not remove any areas. We expanded. Starting in FY 2022, we’ll consider all outlying metro counties without a UA to be rural.

How does this affect me?

It may allow your geographic area to apply for, or receive services from, our rural health grants.

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