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In The Long Run

Changing nonmetro definitions affect population counts

Nonmetro population grew in absolute terms every year since 1970, but nonmetro areas lost population each decade through reclassification of counties from nonmetro to metro status. The nonmetro population decreased from 54.3 million in 1970 (based on the nonmetro definition current at that time) to 49.7 million in 2004 (based on the most recent definition).

Between 1973 and 2004, 442 nonmetro counties became metro. Some nonmetro counties changed because rules governing metro classification changed. However, most became metro because of rapid urbanization—existing metro areas sprawled into neighboring nonmetro counties and smaller cities achieved metro status. Far from losing population, nonmetro areas as defined in the 1970s grew by 50 percent from 1970 to 2004, up to 77.8 million people.