The classification of people and territory as rural poses a number of challenges for researchers, policy makers, and program managers throughout the Federal system and beyond. Most Americans share a common image of rural-open countryside and small towns at some distance from large urban centers-but disagree on where and how to draw the line between rural and urban. Drawing such a line requires answering two questions:

  • At what population threshold do rural places become urban?
  • Where along the urban periphery do suburbs give way to rural territory?

Answers to these questions vary substantially among the profusion of rural definitions currently in use. Population thresholds dividing rural from urban locations range from 2,500 to 50,000. Methods of designating the urban periphery range from the use of municipal boundaries to definitions based on counties. Definitions based on municipal boundaries may classify as rural much of what would typically be considered suburban. Definitions that delineate the urban periphery based on counties may include extensive segments of a county that many would consider rural.

We have selected a representative set of nine alternative rural definitions and compare social and economic indicators from the 2000 decennial census across the nine definitions. We chose socioeconomic indicators (population, education, poverty, etc.) that are commonly used to highlight differences between urban and rural areas.