The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA/ERS) maintains four highly related but distinct geographic classification systems to designate areas by the degree to which they are rural. Three were developed for research purposes, but have been adopted by some federal agencies (not USDA) for delineating areas eligible for rural programs. USDA programs use a variety of other definitions of rural eligibility not covered by the ERS codes.
The ERS rural-urban codes all derive from or add to metropolitan-nonmetropolitan county distinctions of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of urban, including urbanized areas or urban clusters:
- The Rural-Urban Continuum Codes (RUCC—also known as the Beale Codes) are county-level codes originated by ERS in conjunction with the 1970 Census of Population. They classify nonmetropolitan counties by population size of urban area and adjacency to a metropolitan area.
- The Urban Influence Codes (UIC), first developed in the 1990s, are similar, but they also (a) distinguish between nonmetropolitan counties that are in micropolitan areas as designated by OMB
1Much of the information in this chapter is excerpted from the contract statement of task and from the presentation of Mary Bohman, administrator of the Economic Research Service, in the introductory session of the workshop.
and those that are outside such areas, or “non-core” (micropolitan areas contain core counties with at least one urban cluster of at least 10,000 and less than 50,000 persons and counties with extensive commuting to the core); and (b) further distinguish nonmetropolitan counties according to whether they are adjacent to a metropolitan area with a large or small population size.
- The Rural-Urban Commuting Area Codes (RUCA) apply metropolitan and adjacent-to-metropolitan concepts to census tracts. They were sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which wanted to identify places likely to have poor access to health services but found counties to be too large as units.
- The “Frontier and Remote” (FAR) zip code areas are delineated according to size of place and distance from larger urban places. This classification takes advantage of Geographic Information System (GIS) features that allow identification of distance in terms of road travel time.
As noted by Mary Bohman, ERS administrator, the original urban-rural code scheme was developed by ERS in the 1970s. Rural America today is very different from the rural America of 1970 described in the first rural classification report. At that time, migration to cities and poverty among the people left behind was a central concern. The more rural a residence, the more likely a person was to live in poverty, and this relationship held true regardless of age or race. Since the 1970s, the interstate highway system was completed and broadband was developed. Services have become more consolidated into larger centers. Some of the traditional rural industries—farming and mining—have prospered, and there has been rural amenity-based in-migration. Many major structural and economic changes have occurred during this period.
At the same time, rural and urban areas have become commingled. Because of this phenomenon, more people in rural-density habitats live within metropolitan area boundaries than in nonmetropolitan areas. The decline of the rural population in nonmetropolitan areas and the commingling with urban areas are clearly a challenge for rationalizing rural-urban classifications.
These factors have resulted in a quite different rural economy and society since 1970. For instance, poverty is no longer strongly associated with a more rural residence, but access to services remains a problem. There is now a tremendous richness in data for rural classification and analysis and in the ability to use the data through computing to answer questions. In 1970, due to data limitations, the Census Bureau defined urban outside of densely settled urbanized areas as any place
with a population of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000. ERS also based its rural-urban delineation on proximity to an urban area. Those limits were largely defined by the available data and technology.
Today, GIS methods are applied to delineate urban clusters in rural areas and rural clusters in urban areas. Data alone, however, cannot solve all the issues related to defining “rural.” The economy, society, and nature of rural areas need to be taken into account. Understanding the nature of contemporary rural America and its integration into the broader economy is the foundation for considering what would be a meaningful classification.
To begin to address these issues, ERS requested the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to convene a public workshop to deliberate how rurality can best be conceptualized and measured in today’s economy and society. The statement of task is as follows:
An ad hoc (steering) committee will organize a public workshop on data, estimation, and policy issues for rationalizing the multiple classifications of rural areas currently in use by the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The workshop will provide background on the origins, rationales, uses, underlying data, and methods for the four highly related but distinct geographic classification systems currently maintained by ERS to designate areas by the degree to which they are rural. Workshop sessions will cover the criteria for a desirable classification going forward, including: consistency with OMB and Census Bureau definitions; utility in identifying socioeconomic/ demographic variation as it is affected by size of place and degree of urban proximity; utility to stakeholders in delineating program eligibility; and such attributes as a reasonably small number of categories with analytic and “face” validity in terms of plausible breakpoints. Papers will be commissioned for discussion at the workshop on the properties and pros and cons of alternative classification schemes. A workshop session will also consider trade-offs given that no single classification system is likely to satisfy all requirements.
The main purpose of the workshop was to help ERS make decisions regarding the generation of a county rural-urban scale for public use, taking into consideration the changed social and economic environment.
In response to USDA’s request, CNSTAT appointed a six-member steering committee to plan a public workshop to explore research on how rurality can best be conceptualized and measured in today’s economy and
society. The steering committee, working by teleconference and email, planned the workshop to cover the questions of interest in the statement of task and a list of more detailed questions provided by ERS, included as Appendix A. The two-day workshop included nine sessions. The steering committee identified potential speakers for each topic based on members’ knowledge of individuals who conduct state-of-the-art research or have unique expertise in that topic and selected a group of speakers with a range of disciplines and viewpoints.
The Workshop on Rationalizing Rural Area Classifications was held on April 16-17, 2015. The workshop began with a welcoming session chaired by David Brown, Cornell University and chair of the steering committee. This session included a welcome on behalf of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine by Constance Citro, CNSTAT director, and an introduction to the topic of the workshop and ERS needs by Mary Bohman, ERS administrator. The remaining eight sessions are summarized in Chapters 2 through 9 of this report. Each session included time for open-audience discussion. To set the context and provide background information, a paper on the Historical Development of ERS Rural-Urban Classification Systems was prepared by John Cromartie, ERS, which appears in Appendix B and is presented in Chapter 2. The steering committee commissioned four papers to more carefully address topics to be covered during the workshop. These papers served as the basis of the authors’ presentations: Waldorf and Kim (2015) is discussed in Chapter 3, Woods (2015) is discussed in Chapter 5, Murray (2015) is discussed in Chapter 7, and Goetz and Han (2015a) is discussed in Chapter 8.2
STRUCTURE OF THIS REPORT
This report is a summary of the workshop presentations and the discussions flowing from those presentations. Each of the following eight chapters is dedicated to one of the workshop sessions (excluding the welcome session). Following the Introduction, Chapter 2 sets the context and provides brief descriptions of the historical development of rural area classification systems used by the Census Bureau, OMB, and ERS. Chapter 3 describes how rural area classification is done elsewhere in the United States, Europe, and other developed countries. Chapter 4 discusses changes in society and the economy that have contributed to the
2The commissioned papers are available at http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DBASSE/CNSTAT/DBASSE_160632 [October 2015].
need for reconsidering rural area classification systems. Chapter 5 presents different ways to conceptualize rural areas in metropolitan society. Chapter 6 discusses how the current rural area classification systems are used in research and in program design and administration. Chapter 7 assesses the impact of changes in social science data and methods on rural area classification. It also looks into the availability and quality of data from various sources. Chapter 8 focuses on evaluating the reliability and validity of rural area classifications. The final chapter summarizes closing remarks of members of the steering committee and the sponsor.
This report was prepared by a rapporteur as a factual summary of what transpired at the workshop. The steering committee’s role was limited to planning and convening the workshop. The views contained in the report are those of the individual workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of nonparticipants, other workshop participants, the steering committee, or the Academies.
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