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We often use the term rural very loosely when discussing public policy. Rarely do we describe explicitly the kinds of places we have in mind for particular programs and craft precise eligibility requirements that deliver the programs to those places without expensive leakages to other, unintended beneficiaries. Yet, whether state policies directed toward rural people and places are appropriate and effective depends on how places are selected for inclusion or exclusion. Furthermore, how we understand rural conditions and the policy context depends on the definitions we use. Floating about are definitions of rural so varied that anywhere from 58% of the U.S. population to a mere 2% is in rural areas, and both these extremes are based on federal statistical categories. I draw your attention to three facts and three policy recommendations : (1) Fact: A very common way of defining rural ignores the majority of rural people. Recommendation : Pay attention to defining rural so that state policies and programs reach the people and places you intend them to serve. (2) Fact: Most rural people live in growing counties, although hundreds of rural counties are declining in population. Recommendation : Recognize the great diversity of rural policy contexts and that growth, not decline, is the most common policy context for rural people. (3) Fact: Program eligibility rules vary greatly. Recommendation : Craft program eligibility rules that recognize the goals of specific programs, the unique geographic landscape of the state, and its evolving blend of cities, towns, and countryside.


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