What is Rural America?


Trying to define what “rural” is, in a nation of such diverse geography, can be a daunting task; and one’s concept of the term can be a bit ambiguous and vague. Particularly, in this age of instant communication, when a Montana rancher can access the New York stock market quotes from his laptop, miles from the nearest town, defining rural becomes more of a subjective term than what is defined by Webster’s.


However, for those concerned with rural health care and human services, that which constitutes rural must not be subjective, but rather precise in fulfilling the definition. Federal and state policy makers, as well as service providers and researchers, need a clearly stated definition that is current in its interpretation.


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


The need for a clearer definition to meet the needs of new programs and new policies has encouraged other agencies to create more detailed definitions such as found in the collaboration between the WWAMI Rural Health Research Center and the Economic Research Service of the USDA. Agencies involved with rural health and human services will continue to evolve and adapt themselves, striving to better serve the needs of the rural population, for what is rural today will most likely change as we move on into the new millennium.


Why do we need a Definition?


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.


For more information on Rural America check out the Rural Policy Research Institute and the Rural Assistance Center.