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UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

The 144 cities the US government says shouldn’t be called metropolitan anymore

A photograph of a road sign reading "city limit Joplin, pop 50,150"
REUTERS/Eric Thayer
Just over the old limit, well below the proposed limit.
  • Camille Squires
By Camille Squires

Cities reporter

Published

The US government’s definition of an American metropolis could change and some cities are concerned about being downgraded. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) earlier this year recommended raising the minimum qualification for a “metropolitan statistical area,” to areas where the urban center has at least 100,000 residents, double the current standard.

Last week, US senators Mark Kelly and John Thune introduced legislation meant to prevent OMB from making the change, saying that the change in classification could cause more than 100 urban centers as well as their surrounding suburbs, to lose access to some federal funding.

Redefining metropolitan areas because of US population growth

Under OMB’s proposed rules, areas with between 50,000 and 99,999 would be considered “micropolitan.” The change would affect 144 places across the US. That’s roughly a third of all the currently designated metropolitan areas.

The existing standard has been in place since 1950. OMB statisticians say that the update is a reasonable reaction to overall US population growth. They emphasize that the reclassification is intended to be solely for statistical purposes.

Federal government spending in urban areas

But Kelly and Thune, along with other state and local lawmakers, are concerned that the change in threshold could lead to a reduction in federal funding for the impacted cities.

“I’ve heard concerns from Mayors across Arizona about how this policy change could impact their ability to support their communities by qualifying for federal transportation, housing, and other funds,” said Kelly in a statement.

In practice, the federal government uses population thresholds to guide the allocation of money to states and cities. In distributing $350 billion in CARES Act funding to state and local governments earlier this year, the Treasury gave funds directly to cities with 500,000 residents or more, while moving the rest of local funding through states. A 100,000-resident threshold for a metro area could have similar implications.

“Whether or not the intent was for this to be a statistical distinction, the reality has to be acknowledged that there are programatic implications for this change,” says Mark Treskon, senior research associate at the Urban Institute.

For many of the places up for reclassification, the shift to “micropolitan” doesn’t easily fit the way that US populations have trended over recent decades. Since 1950 when the standard was established, the share of the US population living in metro areas has risen from 55.6% to 86.2% in 2019. This has been driven by people moving to urban areas, as well as population growth within them. If the standard were to change, these 144 places would be labeled micropolitan while maintaining many characteristics currently considered metropolitan.

The change would make non-metropolitan areas more urban

William Frey, a demographics researcher at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program points out that changing the standard would reclassify some 19 million people, and make the overall non-metropolitan population much more urban and fast-growing than before.

Among this group are state capitals like Santa Fe, New Mexico and Cheyenne, Wyoming, as well as other cities with regional economic significance, like Napa, California and Ithaca, New York. Given their relative size and prominence, newly minted micropolitan areas could crowd out existing areas in the category in competing for federal funding.

New micropolitan areas could be bad for the existing ones

“I’m more concerned about the already-smaller jurisdictions. A reclassification of some metro areas would mean that they have more competition for funding,” says Jayce Farmer, assistant professor at the School of Public Policy and Leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Some of the objection to the change is rooted in the social and political status that being a metropolitan area confers.

“There is a strong line between metro and everything else,” Frey says. “Metropolitan area is a standard concept used around the world. It seems a bit arbitrary to change the threshold.”

As of now, the Office of Management and Budget has not made a final decision. Any change to metropolitan area designation would take effect in 2023.

Correction (June 23): An earlier version of this item incorrectly referred to Cheyenne, Washington rather than Cheyenne, Wyoming.

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