A proposal to change the federal population threshold for metropolitan areas is currently sitting with the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The proposed change could have far-reaching implications for nonmetropolian communities across the United States, bringing up the question — how do we define “rural?”

During the last week of the Trump administration, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a proposal to increase the minimum core population threshold for metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) from 50,000 to 100,000 people. The federal government utilizes MSA designations to help make policy and funding decisions on education, housing, health care and more.

According to a Brookings Institute report, the designation change would bump about 250 counties and 19 million people from “metro” to “nonmetro” status, widening the federal government’s understanding of what we colloquially call rural America.

The proposal, which now sits with the Biden administration, has been criticized by rurally-focused politicians from both sides of the aisle. Rural advocates argue that the metropolitan designation change will make it more difficult for the nation’s smallest counties to access federal dollars, as they would soon have to compete against counties with far more people and resources.

For example, Garfield County, home to Glenwood Springs and about 59,000 people, would lose its metropolitan designation if the OMB proposal is approved. This could mean that our 8,000-person county might have to compete against Garfield County, and other counties over five times Lake County’s size, for future federal funding.

To many living on the Front Range or in other urban areas, Lake County is undeniably rural. There are few people, no big-box stores, plentiful potholes, only two chain restaurants and endless outdoor recreation opportunities.

Yet to me, Lake County does not feel particularly rural, especially in comparison to other places I’ve lived, such as the San Luis Valley and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Leadville’s densely populated downtown (it’s all relative), proximity to Denver and amenities, influx of “new” money and lack of agriculture just doesn’t shout “rural” to me.

But Lake County’s population is only half the size of my aforementioned homes of Alamosa County and Nelson County, Virginia. Population size isn’t everything, is it?

I believe our understanding of the word “rural” is primarily based on a town or county’s degree of isolation from metro areas, as well as the cultural, social and economic norms and stereotypes told about rural living throughout our nation’s folklore.

Do you see someone you know every time you shop at the grocery store? How far is the closest airport? Is the economy built around, or recovering from, agriculture or the extraction of natural resources? Are the locals headstrong and individualistic? Is there access to an emergency room? Are there cowboy hats, drive-in movie theaters and cows peacefully grazing in pastured fields?

Write the Herald and let us know — what does rural mean to you?

Rachel Woolworth

Herald Editor

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