What makes a town ‘rural’? The answer can mean the difference of billions in federal aid
A town of 1,000 people feels like a rural place to someone from Chicago, but to a person living in a town of 200, that population of 1,000 feels almost urban.
And what the government defines as rural determines tens of billions of dollars a year in spending aimed at helping America's small or remote places.
Houston, Missouri, a town of 2,500 tucked into the hills of the Ozarks near the Arkansas border, takes pride as the hometown of famous clown Emmett Kelly. The residents tout a small-town, rural lifestyle with easy access to wide open, outdoor spaces.
But for some federal grants, Houston is not rural.
That was the case when City Administrator Scott Avery went looking for money to bring stronger broadband to town. Federal money for that is based on how remote, how rural a place is.
“I’m less than 100 air miles from Springfield,” Avery said. “So, I don’t qualify.”
The Springfield area has about 500,000 people. It’s a one hour, 40-minute drive from Houston on two-lane roads
Meanwhile, Rolla, an hour north of Houston, is a town of 20,000 with an interstate highway running through it, a 240-bed hospital, the Missouri University of Science and Technology and its 7,200 students and is a regional retail hub.
But because it’s more than 100 miles from Springfield and St. Louis — for the purposes of that broadband grant the Houston couldn’t qualify for — Rolla is rural.
That’s just one seeming inconsistency in how federal tax dollars are spent on rural issues. Those definitions can change from one federal agency to the next, or within agencies across various grant programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture alone has more than a dozen different definitions for what’s rural.
The definitions take into account things like total population, density, distance from a big city and even the percentage of people who travel into a metro area to work.
“When I look at the city of Rolla, I don’t think it meets the definition, any of the definitions of rural,” said its mayor, Lou Magdits.
And while his city didn’t apply for that particular broadband grant that Houston was shut out of, Magdits doesn’t shy away from grants intended to help small towns.
“If a grant comes down and it’s tied to rural,” he said, “I would probably self-justify it by saying, you know, Rolla and its periphery probably could meet that definition.”
While Rolla is a lot bigger than Houston and still qualifies as rural sometimes, Rolla competes with other communities that are much larger and still meet some definitions of rural.
“Sometimes our county is called rural and a smaller one isn’t, but sometimes we aren’t included and bigger counties are,” said Dale Martin with the Rolla Regional Economic Commission.
Most economic development professionals are resigned to the rules and do the best they can within their inconsistencies.
“Folks are a little taken aback when you say anywhere around here is considered urban, and it’s not,” said Bonnie Prigge, executive director of the Meramec Regional Planning Commission, which assists eight counties. “We would say everything in our area is rural, but we have to follow the rules.”
While the numerous definitions of rural frustrate some communities, there may be an upside.
“With the different definitions, there might be other grants that we could look at that they could qualify for. And if we had one single definition, there might not be a grant to address that issue,” Prigge said.
Avery said city workers in Houston don’t have time to chase after opportunities only to find the rural town isn’t rural enough.
“When we’re looking at these communities and we’re comparing them, one size doesn’t fit all is true,” Avery said. “But at the same time, why can’t we make sure the systems are working everywhere?”
Instead of rural America being treated as a place that can be defined by mileage and population rules, he said, it should be defined by the communities that have similar problems and need help.
That’s the approach Ann Morrison Smith of the Missouri Department of Economic Development takes. She is a project manager based in her hometown of West Plains, population 11,000, and works with nearby communities including Houston.
“We find the fingerprint of each community and how it works and conducts itself to be so unique to itself,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, the issue of defining rural is becoming more prominent as metro areas expand and small towns that were once decidedly rural become exurb bedroom communities.
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