Define Rural before You Budget for It

[imgbelt img=timsilosandsky530.jpg]With so much federal spending under review, we need a clearer, sharper
picture of what’s rural. Spending on ag alone doesn’t tackle the problem
of rural development.


The Vibe

This is urban? For purposes of policy, yes. Much of the Grand Canyon lies in Cococino County, Arizona, designated as “metro” by the federal government.

The halls of Congress have already seen tremendous change this year. Almost everyone senses a need to cut spending. It’s also time to draft a new Farm Bill, as the current bill is set to expire in 2012. If the budget-cutting mood persists in Washington, we can expect more funding reductions for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs. But which programs? How much will they be cut? What’s the government’s role anyway? The debates are on.

As part of the Farm Bill hearings, on February 15 I had an opportunity to testify before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture about one piece of the picture: How to define rural? My quick answer has always been that you know rural when you see it, but this approach doesn’t fly when it comes to policy implementation and the distribution of billions of dollars for rural development projects.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the subcommittee expressed concerns about the definitions of rural that USDA and other federal agencies use. The testimony and questions revealed common threads of confusion and inconsistencies wrought by all of the ways of looking at rural. The appendix to my testimony for the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) included nine possible definitions. There are others.

Urban-rural definitions have been refined periodically since the early twentieth century. At first, it seemed easy to define rural as “not urban,” but that approach only presented a fuzzy picture, vaguely outlined by agriculture. More finely drawn distinctions – USDA’s urban influence, county typology, and rural-urban continuum codes, for example – now help characterize America’s changing and diverse rural areas. These definitions began to emerge in the late 1970s and have been adapted to help understand rural change and diversity, as well as shape program delivery. USDA’s county codes move beyond the old “rural equals agriculture” policy that dominated for most of the twentieth century.