Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
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Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
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A Review of the Texas Economy


Defining Rural Texas Identifying and Supporting Rural Areas

By David Green Published August 2023

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.”

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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.

Recent Legislation Elevates Rural Texas

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

  • Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
    • $330.8 million to support grants to qualified sheriffs, constables and prosecutors as provided by Senate Bill (SB) 22.
    • $1.5 billion to Broadband Development Office (BDO), subject to voter approval of House Joint Resolution (HJR) 125.
  • Texas Health and Human Services Commission
    • $178.2 million increase for rural hospitals, including additional funding for labor and delivery, and $51 million for a new rural hospital grant program to support financial stability and maternal care in rural hospitals.
    • $7.4 million to increase access to mental health for rural Texans by funding consultations at rural hospitals through telepsychiatry networks.
  • Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board
    • $3 million for grants to create new graduate medical education positions in rural areas.
  • Texas Department of Agriculture
    • $1.85 million for rural nursing recruitment and retention stipends.
  • Texas A&M University System Health Science Center
    • $15 million to support rural health initiatives in communities throughout the state.
  • Texas A&M Forest Service
    • $1.5 million to provide training to firefighters in rural and underserved areas.
    • $500,000 to support training for rural peace officers, jailers and telecommunications personnel.

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:

  • $155.2 million to next generation 911 service fund to help modernize services and support first responders.
  • $75 million to pole replacement program established by the 87th Legislature (HB 1505).

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.

What is Rural?

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.

Census Urban-Rural Classification

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):

  • An initial set of census blocks with 425 or more housing units per square mile and additional census blocks with 200 or more housing units per square mile. The areas must also contain a core made up of at least one block with 1,275 or more housing units per square mile.
  • At least 2,000 housing units or at least 5,000 people in 2020.

The Census Bureau’s UA delineations incurred key criteria changes (PDF) in 2020:

  • The minimum urban population threshold was revised from at least 2,500 people in 2010 to at least 2,000 housing units or at least 5,000 people in 2020, following efforts from rural stakeholders to raise the population threshold. Effectively, the number of UAs in Texas declined from 306 in 2010 to 195 in 2020.
  • Delineations became based primarily on housing unit data at the census block level instead of population data, offering a more direct measure of developed landscape, according to the Census Bureau.
  • The Census Bureau reduced territories with low-density populations that can connect densely developed areas, thereby creating more discrete UAs and providing a more accurate measure of urbanization and urban sprawl.
  • Commuter data were introduced to determine where to split large urban agglomerations that encompass multiple urban areas.
  • The Census Bureau ceased using the terms “urbanized areas” (population of 50,000 or more) and “urban clusters” (population between 2,500 and 50,000) and encompassed both into “urban areas.” According to Ratcliffe, researchers recognized that there is no scientific basis for a threshold of 50,000 people to distinguish between different types of UAs.

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).

EXHIBIT 1: Urban-Rural Shares of Population and Housing in U.S. and Texas

2010 Percent Population 2010 Percent Housing 2020 Percent Population 2020 Percent Housing
U.S. Urban 81% 79% 80% 79%
Rural 19% 21% 20% 21%
Texas Urban 85% 83% 84% 83%
Rural 15% 17% 16% 17%

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).

EXHIBIT 2: Urban Statistics by Texas Economic Regions, 2020

Region Urban Areas Total Region Population Percent Population in Urban Areas Most Populous Urban Area
Alamo 19 2,863,800 82% San Antonio
Capital 17 2,407,031 84% Austin
Central Texas 14 1,254,261 68% Killeen
Gulf Coast 19 7,297,022 92% Houston
High Plains 16 866,122 73% Lubbock
Metroplex 31 8,044,641 90% Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington
Northwest 13 549,130 57% Abilene
South Texas 24 2,408,692 85% McAllen
Southeast 10 768,635 54% Beaumont
Upper East 20 1,149,993 44% Tyler
Upper Rio Grande 3 888,720 94% El Paso
West Texas 12 647,458 77% Odessa

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Urban Areas Team, Geography Division

Core Based Statistical Areas

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:

  • Metropolitan Statistical Areas (metros): associated with at least one UA with a population of at least 50,000.
  • Micropolitan Statistical Areas (micros): associated with at least one UA with a population of at least 10,000.

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).

EXHIBIT 3: Core Based Statistical Area Counties in Texas, Population Snapshot

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%
Non-CBSA Counties 123 1,365,314 4.5% 0.2%
Texas 254 30,029,572 100% 15.1%

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.

Rural-Urban Continuum Codes

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).

Exhibit 4: Population Snapshot of Texas Counties by Rural-Urban Continuum Codes, 2022

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 Applications of Rural and Urban Delineations

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).

Exhibit 5: Examples of Rural Definitions Used by Federal Agencies for Program Eligibility and Statistics

Federal Agency/Department/Program 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.”

Assisting Rural Areas

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

Learn more about efforts to expand broadband connectivity, challenges affecting access to health care and the Comptroller’s economic regions.