You are here

What is Rural?

Ideas and definitions relating to the term rural are diverse. The federal government classifies areas and population for statistical, programming, and funding purposes. When applying for grants and funding or conducting research one should refer to the rural definiton provided by the agency or organization.  The rural definition laid out by the U.S. Census Bureau is often the baseline for other definitions.          

Two workers rest on the porch of a small house surrounded by trees.

The Census Bureau defines rural as "any population, housing, or territory NOT in an urban area".  Its definition of rural is closely tied to its urban definition. There are two types of urban areas: 

  • "Urbanized Areas" - population of 50,000 or more "Urban Clusters" - population of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000
  • "Nonmetro" does not mean rural

For more information visit: Rural America Story Map 

Rural Data and Statistics

  • U.S. Department of Agriculture
    • ​​Economic Research Service (ERS)
      • The Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America: interactive map tool and data source which provides statistics on 5 broad categories and socioeconomic factors: demographic data on people and veterans; jobs, county classifications, and income. 
      • Data for Rural Analysis: data sets produced and maintained by ERS that are used by policymakers and researchers to identify rural and urban areas.
      • State Fact Sheets: interactive map and data including state and county information.
  • National Center for Education Statistics: NCES revised their definitions for school locale types in 2006 after working with the Census Bureau to create a new classification system.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)
  • U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA)
    • ​​Rural Veterans: VA rural definitions, demographics, assistance and care resources.

IMAGE: Author Unknown, Undated. "Resting at Laguna Beach, Cal., after ten years of hard work." Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library.  Accessed January 27, 2019. From the Beverly Thomas Galloway Papers.

Revised and updated by Jamie Flood, December 2019.  Original edition: 2006 by Patricia La Caille John.