Census redefines ‘rural’ and ‘urban,’ surprising some Illinois officials

With funding and grants potentially on the line, some village administrators aren’t sure what to expect in the years to come.

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A person fills out forms for the 2020 Census.

A person fills out forms for the 2020 Census.

Sun-Times Media

After new guidelines were laid out by the U.S. Census Bureau this week, 10 Illinois counties and even more cities within them were newly designated as “rural.”

Many of them didn’t even know it.

“I don’t know why we’d ever have been considered an urban area,” said Kevin McNamara, the village manager of Dwight, Illinois, about 80 miles southwest of Chicago, which is now considered rural by the census. “I didn’t know we were ever considered an urban area.”

Of Illinois’ 102 counties, 22 are now considered entirely rural, an increase from 12 in 2010, according to a Census Bureau representative. They were among the more than 1,100 cities, towns and villages in the U.S. that lost their status as urban areas on Thursday as the U.S. Census Bureau released a new list of places considered urban based on revised criteria.

Around 4.2 million residents living in 1,140 small cities, hamlets, towns and villages that lost their urban designation were bumped into the rural category. The new criteria raised the population threshold from 2,500 to 5,000 people and housing units were added to the definition.

Originally, the Census Bureau proposed raising the threshold to 10,000 people but pulled back amid opposition. The new criteria for urban areas shift the urban-rural ratio slightly, to 79.6% and 20.4%, respectively.

The Census Bureau this year made the biggest modification in decades to the definition of an urban area. The bureau adjusts the definition every decade after a census to address any changes or needs of policymakers and researchers. The bureau says this is done for statistical purposes and it has no control over how government agencies use the definitions to distribute funding.

The change matters because rural and urban areas often qualify for different types of federal funding for transportation, housing, health care, education and agriculture. The federal government doesn’t have a standard definition of urban or rural, but the Census Bureau’s definition often provides a baseline.

“The whole thing about urban and rural is all about money,” said Mary Craigle, bureau chief for Montana’s Research and Information Services. “Places that qualify as urban are eligible for transportation dollars that rural areas aren’t, and then rural areas are eligible for dollars that urban areas are not.”

When asked if he was worried about Dwight’s funding, McNamara said “not really,” citing the fact that many of the village’s grants aren’t tied to urban or rural designations, but raw numbers.

“Most of our funding is already based on population,” McNamara said.

Beecher, Illinois, in Will County was another village with a new label.

Robert Barber, the Beecher village administrator, said the new designation could change a number of things for local governments: first responder pension systems, storm water drainage regulations or even being able to receive more direct grants from the federal government.

Despite all of this, Barber said he “didn’t know” what the new classification could mean for smaller communities in Illinois.

“We usually get some ruling or designation that changes how we do things a couple years down the road,” Barber, a 34-year veteran of village politics, said. “But until that happens, I really don’t know. It’s not something we were monitoring closely.”

Contributing: AP

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