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The US Census Bureau is redefining the meaning of “urban” America

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Nearly 1,000 cities, towns and villages in the United States lost their status as urban areas on Thursday as the US Census Bureau released a new list of places considered urban based on revised criteria.

About 3.5 million people living in small towns, hamlets, towns and villages that have lost their urban designation have been grouped into the rural category. The new criteria raised the population threshold from 2,500 to 5,000 people and housing was added to the definition.

The change is significant because rural and urban areas are often eligible for different types of federal funding for transportation, housing, health care, education and agriculture. The federal government does not have a standard definition of urban or rural, but the Census Bureau definition often provides a baseline.

“Everything about urban and rural areas is about money,” said Mary Craigle, bureau chief for Montana Research and Information Services. “Places that qualify as urban are eligible for transportation dollars that rural areas are not, and then rural areas are eligible for transportation dollars that urban areas are not.”

The Census Bureau made the biggest change in decades to the definition of an urban area this year. The bureau adjusts the definition every ten years after a census to meet any changes or needs of policy makers and researchers. The bureau says this is done for statistical purposes and it has no control over how government agencies use the definitions to allocate funds.

There were 2,646 urban areas in the continental United States, Puerto Rico and the American islands on the new list released Thursday.

“This change in definition is a big deal and a substantial departure from long-standing Census Bureau procedures,” said Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire. “It has important implications for both policy and researchers.”

According to the old criteria, an urbanized area had to have at least 50,000 inhabitants. An urban cluster was defined as having at least 2,500 people, a threshold that had existed since 1910. By this definition, 81% of the United States was urban and 19% rural during the past decade.

Under the new definition, drawn up after the 2020 census, the minimum population required for an area to be considered urban has doubled to 5,000 people. Originally, the Census Bureau proposed raising the threshold to 10,000 people, but backed down in the face of opposition. The new criteria for urban areas change the urban-rural ratio slightly, to 79.6% and 20.4%, respectively.

In 1910, a city of 2,500 people had far more goods and services than a city of that size today, “and these new definitions recognize that,” said Michael Cline, a demographer for the state of Carolina. North.

With the new criteria, the distinction between an urbanized area and an urban group has been eliminated since the Census Bureau determined that there was little difference in economic activities between communities with more than and less than 50,000 inhabitants. .

For the first time, the Census Bureau adds housing units to the definition of an urban area. A place can be considered urban if it has at least 2,000 dwellings, based on the calculation that the average household has 2.5 people.

Beneficiaries of using housing instead of people include resorts in ski or beach destinations, or other places with lots of vacation homes, as they can be called urban based on the number houses instead of full-time residents.

“There are many seasonal communities in North Carolina and this change in definition of housing units may be helpful in recognizing that these areas are built up with roads, housing and, for at least part of the year, host multiple thousands of people,” says Céline.

Housing, instead of population, is also going to be used for density measures at the census block level, which typically have several hundred people and are the building blocks of urban areas. The Census Bureau said using housing units instead of population would allow it to make updates in fast-growing areas between censuses once a decade.

But there’s another reason to switch to housing units instead of population: the Census Bureau’s controversial new tool to protect the privacy of participants in its counts and surveys. The method adds intentional errors to the data to mask the identity of a given participant, and it is especially noticeable in smaller geographic areas, such as census blocks.

“Block-level data is not really reliable and it gives them the opportunity to have the density threshold that they have chosen to be on par with the population,” said Eric Guthrie, principal demographer at Minnesota State. Demographic Center.

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter: @MikeSchneiderAP

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