Brief Defining “Rural” for the Study on Human Services Programs in Rural Contexts
Corianne Payton Scally, Heather Hahn
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2M Research and the Urban Institute, in partnership with the Administration for Children and Families and Health Resources and Services Administration, are conducting a mixed-methods study to assess the challenges and opportunities for administering human services programs in rural contexts. How we define “rural” affects how we design and execute the study, as well as what the findings mean and how they can be applied to policy and practice. This brief explains how our study defines rural counties and specific regions along with some key limitations to these definitions.

Through a mixed-methods research design, including administrative and secondary data and 12 site visits, the project aims to (1) provide a rich description of human services programs in rural contexts, (2) determine the unmet need for human services in rural communities, and (3) identify opportunities for strengthening the capacity of human services programs to promote the economic and social well-being of individuals, families, and communities in rural contexts.

The study will examine several human services programs administered by the US Department of Health and Human Services, including Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood; Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting; Health Profession Opportunity Grants; and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as well as programs on early childhood development, family development, employment, and higher education and technical training.

Primary Research Questions

For the Human Services Programs in Rural Contexts study, how can we define “rural” to capture the diversity of rural people and places while aligning with available data?


This brief provides a standard definition for “rural” to apply to collecting, analyzing, and reporting data and findings for the Human Services Programs in Rural Contexts study.

Key Findings and Highlights

In addition to the nonmetropolitan county designation defined by the Office of Management and Budget, we use the US Department of Agriculture Rural-Urban Continuum Codes to categorize nonmetropolitan counties across two additional aspects of rural communities: the size of their urban population and whether it is adjacent to one or more metropolitan areas.

To fully reflect the diversity of rural communities—including their distinct histories, cultures, and economic contexts—this study ensures key rural regions are represented in data collection and analyzed fully, including the US Census Regions (Midwest, Northeast, South, and West) and four rural regions commonly defined in federal programs (Appalachia, Colonias, Delta, and Native Lands).

Through categorizing rural counties into six distinct groups and multiple regions, we have generated a range of rural contexts where human services programs operate that allows us to collect and analyze data.


To develop a definition of “rural” appropriate for this study, this report draws on the expertise of the research team as well as human services practitioners, researchers, and evaluators serving as project advisors.

Research Areas Social safety net
Tags Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Welfare and safety net programs Rural people and places
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center