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Metropolitan Reclassification and the Urbanization of Rural America


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We highlight the paradoxical implications of decadal reclassification of U.S. counties (and America’s population) from nonmetropolitan to metropolitan status between 1960 and 2017. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, we show that the reclassification of U.S. counties has been a significant engine of metropolitan growth and nonmetropolitan decline. Over the study period, 753—or nearly 25% of all nonmetropolitan counties—were redefined by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as metropolitan, shifting nearly 70 million residents from nonmetropolitan to metropolitan America by 2017. All the growth since 1970 in the metropolitan share of the U.S. population came from reclassification rather than endogenous growth in existing metropolitan areas. Reclassification of nonmetropolitan counties also had implications for drawing appropriate inferences about rural poverty, population aging, education, and economic growth. The paradox is that these many nonmetropolitan “winners”—those experiencing population and economic growth—have, over successive decades, left behind many nonmetropolitan counties with limited prospects for growth. Our study provides cautionary lessons regarding the commonplace narrative of widespread rural decline and economic malaise but also highlights the interdependent demographic fates of metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties.

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Data Availability

All the data used are publicly available from the sources listed in the Data section of this article.


  1. We use the terms rural and nonmetropolitan as well as metropolitan and urban interchangeably here.

  2. A substantial majority of nonmetropolitan residents voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, seemingly registering their dissatisfaction with the political status quo and urban-centric political concerns and public policy (Scala and Johnson 2017; Wuthnow 2018).

  3. A 2015 National Academy of Sciences report on the “Workshop on Rationalizing Rural Area Classifications” highlighted this central point (Wunderlich 2016). Throughout U.S. demographic history, rural people and places have become part of the urban population through rural-to-urban migration but also through reclassification by OMB as nonmetropolitan populations are redefined as metropolitan.

  4. Recent data suggest that nonmetropolitan areas have resumed growth in the past two years, although they have lost population over the entire period from 2010 to 2018 (Johnson 2019).

  5. The number of counties will vary slightly from analysis to analysis because of boundary changes that complicate longitudinal analysis. Over the past century, a few new counties have been added, others have had boundary changes, and Virginia has introduced the concept of independent cities.

  6. There are minor differences between the decadal reclassifications reported here and the early and late transition counties reported earlier. A modest number of decadal reclassifications were temporary. For example, a few counties reclassified as metropolitan in 1973 reverted to nonmetropolitan status in 1983. Such counties would be included in the decadal changes but not in the early and late transition classification, which delineates change over longer periods.

  7. There is considerable disagreement about the most appropriate income measure to define economic well-being (Katz 2012). Katz noted that alternative income measures differ in terms of the sources of income (earnings or non-earned income, such as pension income) and their sensitivity to demographic factors, such as household size or number of working adults. Here per capita income is used. The correlation between the per capita income and median family income, for example, is quite high (.8), so overall patterns evident in one measure will be reflected in the other.

  8. Detailed analysis of the longitudinal patterns of education and the other three human capital indicators (not included here) reveals that the significant gap between the continuously nonmetropolitan and the transition counties already existed in 1970 and remained relatively stable between 1970 and 2017. For example, the percentage of college graduates was 44% higher in the early transition counties than in continuously nonmetropolitan counties in 1970. In 2017, the gap was 48%. For per capita income, the percentage income difference between the early transition and continuously nonmetropolitan was 16.6% in 1970 and 21% in 2017. Thus, it was not becoming metropolitan that created the substantial differences in 2017 but rather the counties that transitioned had higher levels of human capital to begin with.

  9. To maintain consistency with data provided by the Economic Research Service of the USDA (2019), we calculate the poverty rate as the number of people below the poverty line divided by the total population. This is not consistent with the U.S. Census Bureau calculation of the poverty rate, which is the number of people below the poverty line divided by the population for whom poverty status is known. As a result, our measure is lower than the official poverty rate. For example, in 2017, the official poverty rate was 14.6% compared with our reported percentage in poverty of 13.2%.


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The authors gratefully acknowledge John Cromartie of the Economic Research Service of the USDA for his contribution to the early analytical work on this project. Kenneth Johnson’s research was supported by an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and by the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station in support of Hatch Multi-State Regional Project W-4001 through joint funding of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 1013434, and the state of New Hampshire. Barbara Cook of the Carsey School of Public Policy provided GIS support. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the agencies supporting their research.

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Both authors contributed equally to the conception, design, and execution of the project, including drafting and editing the final manuscript. Johnson was responsible for the acquisition and management of data and carried out the analyses in consultation with Lichter. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Kenneth M. Johnson.

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Johnson, K.M., Lichter, D.T. Metropolitan Reclassification and the Urbanization of Rural America. Demography 57, 1929–1950 (2020).

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