Document Type

Policy Brief

Publication Date



There is no single, universally preferred definition of rural that serves all policy purposes. The choice of rural definition affects who benefits from a policy and who does not. Key considerations for understanding the policy implications of different rural definitions include the following:

  • Rural definitions can be built on different units of geography, each of which has distinct advantages and disadvantages.
  • The two most commonly used classification systems, those of the Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget, result in very different sets of places defined as rural.
  • Policies and programs can be targeted when rural definitions are combined with key demographic, economic, or health care provider characteristics.
  • Rural designations can change with shifts in population distribution or commuting patterns, or as a result of changes in geographic boundaries.
  • Data availability is essential to support the application of the rural definition.
  • There are many resources that can help with understanding the complexities of rural definitions.


Issue Brief

Funding Organization or Grant

This analysis was funded under a cooperative agreement with the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (ORHP), Health Resources and Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, grant number U18RH03719.