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In an urban culture, millions of people and most areas remain rural

Agriculture.com Staff 09/26/2007 @ 9:10am

On our walls we have a couple of maps of the U.S. that show the degree to which counties are rural or urban. For states in the eastern half of the country with relatively small counties, this works reasonably well, but even there problems arise. A more significant problem arises in the West where the counties are very large when compared to those in the East.

Most often, a county like San Bernardino, California, is marked as an urban county because of a large population base in the southeastern part of the county around the city of San Bernardino. At the same time over 75% of the land consists of mountains and largely uninhabited areas of the Mohave Desert.

Recently the USDA, Economic Research Service added a rural definitions data set to its Web site. On this site, the USDA provides a variety of tools that can be used to look at nine different definitions that identify areas that are rural as compared to urban.

In this brief column, we do not have space to look at all of them so we will focus on just a couple, using the state of Illinois as an example. One set of definitions uses the population of census places -- basically incorporated and unincorporated places that serve as community centers. Using the numbers, the USDA offers three different cutoffs between rural and urban: All areas outside census places with 2,500 or more people; 10,000 or more people; and 50,000 or more people.

As is to be expected, Greater Chicago, Rockford, Peoria, Bloomington, Springfield, Champaign and Decatur show up as urban and the rest of the state is rural with a number of county seats and other rural business centers scattered throughout the state. This map shows large areas that are open to the growing of corn, soybeans and other agricultural products.

Contrast that map one that uses the Office of Management and Budget definition of metro with the remaining counties being considered non-metro or rural. Large swaths of the state are marked metro, even if a lot of corn and beans are grown in some of those counties.

So what percentage of Illinois' population and area is rural? It all depends upon the definition you use. In Illinois, 19% of the population lives outside census places with a population greater than 2,500 with 94% of the land being considered rural. At the same time, 29% of the population lives outside of census places with a population greater than 10,000 with 96% of the land being considered rural.

If you raise the threshold to 50,000, then 60% of Illinois residents are rural -- living outside the seven cities listed above -- as is 99% of the land. Using the Office of Management and Budget definition of metro areas results in 14% of Illinois' people being considered rural as is 49% of the land.

The USDA site has maps and similar statistics for all states.

Not only are these numbers fascinating, they are politically important. If one wants to minimize the importance of farming and rural areas then the set of numbers to use are those that result from OMB's metro-non-metro distinction which minimizes the size of non-metro population groups. On the other hand if one wants to show the continued relevance of rural issues then using a threshold of 50,000 includes 63% of the U.S. population and 99% of the land.

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