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Defining Rural at the U.S. Census Bureau

Report Number ACSGEO-1
Michael Ratcliffe, Charlynn Burd, Kelly Holder, and Alison Fields


What image comes to mind when thinking of a rural place? Does it include the farmhouse down the road? Does it include the new housing subdivision on the outskirts of town? Does it include the community that has formed at the crossroads?

The U.S. Census Bureau defines rural as what is not urban—that is, after defining individual urban areas, rural is what is left. Other federal agencies and researchers may use a different definition of rural. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service illustrates that there are several different ways to measure rural communities.

This brief highlights the history of delineating rural at the Census Bureau, the current delineations of urban/rural areas, and the relationship that exists between decennial censuses, the American Community Survey (ACS), and geography. Additionally, the brief categorizes counties based on three types of rurality and highlights the availability of ACS estimates.


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