Rural pride is part of the cultural fabric of Texas, a land of vast open spaces, farms, ranches, cattle and the home of Lonesome Dove. Take a road trip across the U.S., especially Texas, and you’ll spend most of that ride passing through small towns and countryside, which would easily be described as “rural.”
State and local lawmakers work hard to advocate for rural residents, ensuring they have access to the same economic opportunities and support as their urban counterparts. Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who grew up on a family farm in rural Texas and has served in the Legislature, is well acquainted with rural residents’ challenges and is committed to addressing them. “As a senator and representative, I focused on the same issues I continue to support and explore today: things like a reliable water supply and broadband connectivity.”
To best allocate resources for rural — and urban — areas is an ever-evolving task, especially for geographic researchers and policymakers who rely on definitions of rural and urban. Federal, state and local government agencies apply various population and housing thresholds to identify these areas, and criteria can vary from program to program.
Why are these delineations important? They are highly consequential for the distribution of government funds.
The 88th Legislature approved a variety of funding initiatives that benefit rural Texas; the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts is responsible for administering key programs affecting rural areas.
House Bill (HB) 1, General Appropriations Act
HB 5, Economic Development Incentive Program
Reinstates school districts’ ability to offer property tax abatements for projects that create jobs and generate local and state tax revenue. Structured to encourage investment in less populous counties by lowering job and investment thresholds in those areas.
HJR 125/HB 9, Development/Funding for Rural Broadband
Pending voter approval of HJR 125 on the November 2023 general election ballot, establishes the Broadband Infrastructure Fund with an initial investment of $1.5 billion for broadband and telecommunications infrastructure. Provides for the one-time transfer of:
SB 22, Rural Law Enforcement Grant Program
Will be established and administered by the Comptroller’s office to assist sheriff’s offices in qualified counties, including salary increases.
SB 28/Senate Joint Resolution 75, Water Assistance Fund
Pending voter approval, directs $1 billion into the New Water Supply for Texas Fund.
HB 2308, Texas Right to Farm Act
Strengthens legal protections for agricultural operations against nuisance actions and litigation that restrains the operations of these facilities.
In simplest terms, a rural area is any population, housing or territory that is not in an urban area. Therefore, to identify rural areas, one must first define the urban landscape.
Two main definitions form the basis for many of the urban-rural delineations currently in place in federal, state and local agencies, according to Michael Ratcliffe, a senior adviser in the Geography Division of the U.S. Census Bureau: 1) the U.S. Census Bureau’s urban-rural classification and 2) the core based statistical area (CBSA) classification determined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
These two entities offer different analytical approaches. The Census Bureau uses census blocks to provide information about settlement and development patterns. (Census blocks are statistical areas that are bounded by visible features, such as streets, roads, streams and railroad tracks, and by nonvisible boundaries like city, school district and county lines.) The OMB describes the socioeconomic relationships between communities and across urban and rural territory.
In the Census Bureau’s updated 2020 urban-rural classifications, there are two criteria that must be met to qualify as an “urban area” (UA):
The Census Bureau’s UA delineations incurred key criteria changes (PDF) in 2020:
In 2020, the share of Texas’ population and housing units in UAs was 84 percent and 83 percent, respectively, exceeding the U.S. averages. Notably, the 2020 share of the urban population remained largely unchanged from 2010, despite the UA criteria changes introduced in 2020 (Exhibit 1).
|2010 Percent Population||2010 Percent Housing||2020 Percent Population||2020 Percent Housing|
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Urban Areas Team, Geography Division
While 84 percent of the Texas population resides in urban areas, this share varies widely across the Comptroller’s 12 economic regions, ranging from 44 percent in the Upper East Texas region to 90 percent or more in the Upper Rio Grande, Metroplex and Gulf Coast regions (Exhibit 2).
|Region||Urban Areas||Total Region Population||Percent Population in Urban Areas||Most Populous Urban Area|
|Upper Rio Grande||3||888,720||94%||El Paso|
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Urban Areas Team, Geography Division
A CBSA is a statistical area composed of one or more counties that include a core (UA) with a population of at least 10,000 and adjacent counties with a high degree of economic and social integration, as measured by commuting ties to that core. There are two types of CBSAs:
The OMB uses the Census Bureau’s UA designations to identify its central metro or micro county. Outlying counties are then included based on commuting ties to that central county or counties. By this criterion, urban areas (as measured by metro areas) accounted for about 90 percent of the state’s population in 2022 and the vast share of its population growth over the past 10 years (Exhibit 3).
|CBSA Status||Number of Counties||2022 Population Estimates||2022 Share of Total Population||2012-2022 Percent Change|
|Metropolitan Statistical Area||80||26,941,438||89.7%||17.0%|
|Micropolitan Statistical Area||51||1,722,820||5.7%||2.1%|
Sources: U.S. Office of Management and Budget; U.S. Census Bureau; Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
Though OMB advises against using the nonmetro classification as a proxy for rural areas, many agencies and researchers use a metro-nonmetro dichotomy to define urban and rural, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) report, Rural America at a Glance. According to Ratcliffe, this is because it’s easier to work with counties than block-based urban areas and there are a lot more data available for counties.
The rural-urban dichotomy exemplified by the CBSA designation has its drawbacks. Low density areas, for example, are sometimes part of metro/urban counties. The most egregious example nationally is the Grand Canyon, which technically is classified as being in a metro county.
To provide a better description of rurality, the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) assigned county codes — known as Rural-Urban Continuum Codes — based on size and adjacency to metropolitan areas (Exhibit 4).
|Code||CBSA Status||Description||2022 Population Estimates||2022 Share of Population||2012-2022 Percent Change|
|1||Metropolitan||Counties in metro areas of 1 million population or more||20,436,390||68.1%||20.5%|
|2||Metropolitan||Counties in metro areas of 250,000 to 1 million population||4,685,316||15.6%||6.6%|
|3||Metropolitan||Counties in metro areas of fewer than 250,000 population||1,861,486||6.2%||9.0%|
|4||Nonmetropolitan||Urban population of 20,000 or more, adjacent to a metro area||663,972||2.2%||4.3%|
|5||Nonmetropolitan||Urban population of 20,000 or more, not adjacent to a metro area||346,269||1.2%||0.2%|
|6||Nonmetropolitan||Urban population of 2,500 to 19,999, adjacent to a metro area||1,327,236||4.4%||1.7%|
|7||Nonmetropolitan||Urban population of 2,500 to 19,999, not adjacent to a metro area||509,183||1.7%||-3.0%|
|8||Nonmetropolitan||Completely rural or less than 2,500 urban population, adjacent to a metro area||136,927||0.5%||0.2%|
|9||Nonmetropolitan||Completely rural or less than 2,500 urban population, not adjacent to a metro area||62,793||0.2%||-12.7%|
Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture; U.S. Census Bureau; Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
Government agencies often deviate from these rural-urban definitions and provide their own criteria. Some agencies use the Census Bureau’s definition to administer their programs. For example, the Federal Highway Administration identifies Metropolitan Planning Organizations based on the presence of a Census Bureau urban area of 50,000 or more population (Exhibit 5).
||Purpose||Source of Rural Definition||Population Threshold|
|USDA, Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program||Water and waste loans and grants eligibility||Census Bureau Places||Less than 10,000|
|USDA, Business and Industry Loan Guarantees||Business and industry loans eligibility||Combination of Census Bureau Places and Urban Areas||Less than 50,000|
|USDA, ERS, State Fact Sheets||Statistics for rural and urban areas by state||OMB Core Based Statistical Areas||Less than 50,000|
|Department of Education, Rural Education Achievement Program||Rural school district grant eligibility||National Center for Education Statistics Locales and Census Bureau Urban Areas||5,000|
|Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); National Center for Health Statistics, Natality and Mortality Data; Health Monitoring of Urban and Rural Residents||Statistics for rural and urban areas by county||OMB Core Based Statistical Areas||Less than 50,000|
|HHS, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Rural Health Clinics||Rural health clinics certification||Census Bureau Urban Areas||Less than 50,000|
|HHS, Health Resources and Services Administration, Federal Office of Rural Health Policy||Rural health funding eligibility||ERS Rural-Urban Commuting Areas||50,000|
|Department of Transportation (DOT), Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Program||MPO designation; transportation planning and funding||Census Bureau Urban Areas||50,000 or More|
|DOT, Transportation Infrastructure Finance And Innovation Act (TIFIA)||TIFIA rural project initiative eligibility||Census Bureau Urban Areas||150,000|
|Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Health Administration, Office of Rural Health||Statistics for rural veterans||ERS Rural-Urban Commuting Areas||50,000|
Source: List provided by Michael Ratcliffe, U.S. Census Bureau, Geography Division
A 2018 report by the Texas Legislative Council compiled definitions of “rural” found in all Texas statutes and administrative codes, finding 46 definitions (with some similarities) across 18 state agencies (including a university). Like federal definitions, state programs include a range of criteria that characterize rural areas, from specific population and geographic thresholds to more subjective qualifications, like “an area which is predominantly rural in character.”
Defining “rural” can get philosophical, depending in part on the challenges being addressed. As Ratcliffe explains, “It’s being aware of … what territory and communities are included within either the urban definition or the rural definition, who is excluded from either of those definitions, and how well does that mesh with what you’re trying to achieve in either analysis or a program.
“This is why many of us working in this area have been moving away from a strict dichotomy of urban-rural or metro-nonmetro and starting to move toward a continuum of categories that reflects the landscape’s different characteristics,” he says. “A rural community on the outskirts of a large urban center like, say, Houston or Dallas, Fort Worth or San Antonio, is going to have a different character than one that’s in the Panhandle.”
While the definition of rural may be fluid, state leaders and lawmakers recognize the value of small communities. (See Recent Legislation Elevates Rural Texas.) The 88th Legislature approved policy measures and allocated millions of dollars to support rural priorities including health care, public safety, education, economic development and farming. If approved by Texas voters, billions more will be available for water and rural broadband.
Lawmakers tasked the Comptroller’s office with establishing and administering a grant program for rural sheriff’s offices to help address certain needs including salaries. The Broadband Development Office, which the 87th Legislature placed in the Comptroller’s office, is responsible for connecting the state’s rural areas to high-speed internet through initiatives such as the Bringing Online Opportunities to Texas (BOOT) Program and the federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program.
These actions demonstrate that despite varying definitions, leaders’ commitment to supporting rural Texas is unwavering.
“As our population grows, the lines between urban and rural areas are blurring. But lawmakers must ensure all Texans have access to the same resources, no matter where they live,” says Hegar. FN