By Kent Fillinger and Jim Nieman
This issue of Christian Standard focuses on ministry in the lesser-populated regions of our country, but defining terms associated with our nation’s nonmetropolitan areas is surprisingly difficult.
For instance, a town of fewer than 2,500 with a singularly dense pocket of population has what the U.S. Census Bureau classifies as an urban component.
And a metropolitan county—defined as an urbanized area by the Census Bureau when 50,000 or more people live there—usually has at least one rural section.
In 2010, in fact, only 29 counties in the United States were completely urban. By contrast, 704 counties were completely rural. (Counties, you’ll notice, are the building blocks for national data.)
And what makes a place rural? The Census Bureau says that any place that it does not classify as urban—1,000 people living in one square mile—is automatically determined to be rural.
For purposes of this article and this issue, we will try to define and delineate three specific terms: micropolitan, small town, and rural.
What is micropolitan?
A) one of 31 flavors at Baskin-Robbins
B) a popular magazine for young short women
C) a metro area in miniature
If you answered C, the U.S. Census Bureau would like to shake your hand.
—Jerry Harris, from Micropolitan Church: Doing Mega-Ministry in America’s Small Towns (CrossBooks, 2011).
Micropolitan may be an unfamiliar term. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says its first known use was in 1982. That dictionary defines micropolitan this way: “of, relating to, or being a population area that includes a city with 10,000 to 50,000 residents and its surrounding communities.”
In 2013, the Office of Management and Budget defined broad labor-market areas. Metropolitan areas were classified as “densely-settled urban entities with 50,000 or more people . . . [which also include] outlying counties that are economically tied to the core counties.”
Nonmetropolitan areas accounted for everything else.
But these nonmetro areas were subdivided into two types, the first being micropolitan areas and the other being noncore.
A micropolitan area was defined as “nonmetro labor-market areas centered on urban clusters of 10,000–49,999 persons and defined with the same criteria used to define metro areas.” (That “same criteria” part means the urban clusters are densely settled and that the outlying counties are economically tied to the core counties.)
So, a micropolitan area is simply a smaller-scale version of a metropolitan area. It is the hub of what is generally considered to be a “rural” area.
In 2010, 381 metropolitan areas and 536 micropolitan areas (also called urban clusters) accounted for 94 percent of the U.S. population. The remaining 6 percent of the population lives in nonmetropolitan areas.
Well I was born in a small town
And I can breathe in a small town
Gonna die in this small town
And that’s prob’ly where they’ll bury me.
—John Cougar Mellencamp, “Small Town”
In general, we think of small towns as incorporated (but isolated) municipalities we happen upon after driving past miles of cornfields, over mountains, or through forests. But surrounding our biggest cities—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dallas among them—are scores of much smaller jurisdictions, including small towns, that have their own systems of government and parochial mentalities.
As recently as the 2000 Census, slightly more than half of the nation’s population lived in jurisdictions with fewer than 25,000 people or in rural areas.
A small town, then, can be a part of a metropolitan area, or it can be integral to a micropolitan area, or it can simply be an isolated municipality.
And now, a complicated question: What is the difference between a city and a town?
It depends on the state. And the difference may have to do with population size, or legal status, or self-determination (individual or jurisdictional), or history. But, in general, a city is larger and more densely populated than a town. And, in turn, a town is generally larger than a village.
And so—after two hours of Internet research—there doesn’t appear to be any firm data on the population of an average-size town in the United States. And without knowing that, it is impossible to accurately define this simple question: “What is a small town?”
That said, one contributor to city-data.com did offer a reasonable, informed—albeit “from-the-hip”—answer to the question with which we are dealing. He classified populations of towns this way: ghost town (population, 0); near ghost town (1–100); very small town (101–1,000); small town (1,001–10,000); town (10,001–50,000).
It’s not perfect, but it’ll have to do.
“Here are the words you don’t want to hear at the beginning of rural policy meetings: ‘Before we get into our topic, let’s take a quick look at how we are going to define rural.’ There’s never anything quick about it.”
—quoted from The Blandin Foundation: Strengthening Rural Minnesota website
Rural, by general definition, relates to or refers to the country (that is, areas other than the city), and to the people who live in the country, and to agriculture.
Easy enough, right? Not so fast.
In an essay titled “What Is Rural?” the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service observed,
The existence of multiple rural definitions reflects the reality that rural and urban are multidimensional concepts. Sometimes population density is the defining concern, in other cases it is geographic isolation. Small population size typically characterizes a rural place, but how small is rural?
After bandying about the pros and cons of defining urban and rural in various ways, the Economic Research Service suggests the metropolitan-nonmetropolitan classification (described above in the “Micropolitan” section) might be best for analyses of social changes, and therefore, might be the best-suited for our needs.
Under that system of looking at it, metropolitan areas would, in general, be considered urban, while nonmetropolitan areas would, in general, be considered rural.
But what of micropolitan areas? Would they be considered urban or rural?
That is something about which the people living there will no doubt have formed an opinion.
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting and Jim Nieman is managing editor of Christian Standard.