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What’s ‘Rural’ Mean? U.S. Has 15 Answers

Lenoir is a small town in western North Carolina. It has 18,000 people, a Wal-Mart, a Waffle House and an annual parade famous for people carrying pans of blackberry cobbler.

Is it a rural place? The U.S. government has an answer: Yes.

No.

Yes. Yes. No. No. No. Yes. No. No. No. No. No.

The problem is that the U.S. government has at least 15 official definitions of the word “rural,” two of which apply only to Puerto Rico and parts of Hawaii.

All of these definitions matter; they’re used by various agencies to parcel out $37 billion-plus in federal money for “rural development.” And each one is different.

In one program, for instance, “rural” is defined as any place with fewer than 50,000 residents. So Lenoir is rural, and eligible for money. But in another, only towns smaller than 2,500 residents are “rural.” So Lenoir isn’t, and isn’t.

And so on. There are 11 definitions of “rural” in use within the U.S. Department of Agriculture alone.

“Sometimes we’re in. Sometimes we’re out,” said Lane Bailey, the city manager in Lenoir. “We always have to check what our definition is for different grants. ‘What are we this day?’ ”

These varying definitions have become a baroque example of redundancy and duplication in Washington. They mean extra costs for taxpayers — and extra hassle for small-town officials — as separate offices ask them the same question in up to 15 different ways.

“If you were starting from a blank slate, providing one definition would be optimal,” said Doug O’Brien, the USDA official in charge of rural development programs.

But optimal is not happening. This week, as soon as today, the Senate is expected to pass a bill that would pare down the list of definitions. Not down to one, however.

Down to nine.

Every year, there are billions available to fund projects in rural communities. Money for housing. Community centers. Sewer plants. Broadband connections.

But what, exactly, is a rural area? Is there a single definition that could take in a Kansas wheat farm, a West Virginia coal town, a Vermont dairy and a Hawaii cattle ranch?

“It’s like, if I said to you, ‘Give me a definition of love,’ ” said Gary Hart, the director of the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota. “You wouldn’t give me one definition. You’d give me 20.”

The list has grown in the way government duplication often does: one good intention at a time. Frequently, a new set of legislators or bureaucrats has set up a program to help rural communities, and has come up with its own definition of what “rural” ought to mean.

But nobody bothers to erase the other definitions already on the books.

Then, repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Today, the government’s official definitions of “rural” include one written in 1936: an area with fewer than 10,000 people. That one is still used to parcel out rural telecommunications grants. Another definition was written in 1949: any place with fewer than 2,500 people. It is used for housing-aid programs.

These exist alongside other, different definitions: One sets the population limit for “rural” areas at 20,000. Another, at 25,000. Another, at 50,000.

The result, for people in rural areas, is a government with multiple personalities, living in multiple realities at once.

For instance: By Washington’s strictest definition of rural — any place with fewer than 2,500 residents — there are 59 million rural Americans. By its most expansive definition — any place with less than 50,000 residents — there are about 190 million, more than three times more.

“Oh, my God. This doesn’t — this just doesn’t make sense,” said Kevin Sanchez, who runs a nonprofit food bank in northern California’s Yolo County. Sanchez had a confusing run-in with the government’s thicket of definitions.

He wanted a grant for a refrigerated truck to deliver food to people in outlying areas of the county. But there was a problem: At the end of the workday, Sanchez planned to park the truck at the food bank’s office in the county seat, Woodland — population 56,000.

By this grant program’s definitions, the truck couldn’t be considered a rural project.

“I said, ‘Yolo County’s rural. Period.’ ” Sanchez said. “They said ‘Well, gee. You know, the town is more than 20,000, so you really don’t qualify. Would you consider relocating the truck?’ ”

If the truck were outside city limits, they explained, the definition wouldn’t be a problem. Sanchez didn’t apply for the money.

“You go park a truck outside the town, and it ain’t gonna be there the next morning,” he said.

In small-town Shelby, N.C., there was another problem with definitions. The operators of a proposed charter school wanted to apply for a rural-aid grant. Shelby has 20,300 people, which would make it “rural” under many federal definitions. But not, unfortunately, the one that mattered.

The definitions had to be satisfied. But they couldn’t move the school.

So they moved the town instead. Shelby “de-annexed” that plot of land, pulling back the city border so the school would be outside it. And officially rural.

“Does it seem right, or fair?” asked Shelby Mayor O. Stanhope Anthony III. “You know, probably not.”

Now, the U.S. Senate is considering a farm bill that would knock six definitions off the list by settling on a single population cap for “rural” areas. The Senate bill decrees that any place that has fewer than 50,000 residents, and isn’t adjacent to a big city, should be counted as rural.

That’s simpler. The USDA supports the idea. But in the House, both Republicans and Democrats have said the population cap is too high and the bill’s vision of “rural” is too expansive.

By the Senate’s definition, for instance, the label “rural” would apply equally to Harrisburg, Neb., population 100, and Harrisburg, Pa., a busy state capital with a population of 49,279. The Senate bill would still give smaller places priority treatment.

Even if Congress does knock six definitions off the list, in January a federal agency is planning to add a new one.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will begin using its own definition of “rural.” It’s based on a complicated measurement of urbanization and commuting patterns.

So then, the question of whether Lenoir is rural would have yet another answer: Yes. No. Yes. Yes. No. No. No. Yes. No. No. No. No. No.

And ... no.