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American Rural Studies: Demographics

A guide to the history, culture, and socioeconomic issues facing the over 66 million Americans living in rural areas

Demographics of Rural America

The demographics of Rural America are heavily based on how the Census Bureau defines "rural" at a given time. 

Not all of these tools and metrics have been updated to the 2020 Census definition of rural [March 2023]

 Available Census tools from 2010 show what materials will be updated shortly.

Demographic Information and Statistics

The U.S. Census Bureau PROPOSED changes to the definitions of URBAN and RURAL for the 2020 Census in February 2021. In March 2022, the final criteria for these definitions applying to the 2020 Decennial Census were approved.

These new definitions of urban and rural take into account both total housing stock OR total population. With this change - many formerly (smaller) urban areas lost their urban status, and the rural population of the country increased by five million people.

Demographic Information and Statistics

"The Census Bureau's urban-rural classification is a delineation of geographic areas, identifying both individual urban areas and the rural areas of the nation. ... "Rural" encompasses all population, housing and territory not included within an urban area."

The Census Bureau proposed in 2021 to raise the population definition of an Urban Area to include a population of at least 10,000 people or 4,000 housing units. After public feedback, concerned that too many small urban areas would be recategorized, the following benchmarks were adopted:

  •   a population of at least 5,000 people OR
  •   at least 2,000 housing units.          

Those communities, regardless of legal incorporation as cities, towns or villages, that do NOT meet the above metrics, are classified as RURAL until at least the next decennial census.

2020 Rural Census Data By State


Why are there multiple government definitions for rural?

For many years, the federal government has been classifying areas and population for statistical purposes and to target programs and funds. Federal agencies create and use definitions to facilitate their own programs because no single definition clearly divides rural and urban entities. Thus, over time, many definitions have been developed by different agencies for various purposes using different classifications. All have strengths and weaknesses and are used by government agencies depending on which one best fits their programmatic goals.

For example, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) created the designation of metropolitan and micropolitan areas to create consistency in data collection across federal statistical agencies. Though these definitions were not intended to be used for programmatic purposes, nonetheless they are.

Census Data for Rural Areas

NOTE: 2010 Census Data

This U.S. Census Bureau "story map" and its associated links are from the 2010 decennial census, and the 2015 American Community Survey. They give us ideas of the size and scope of Rural America, while the final statistics from the 2020 decennial census are being tabulated. 

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