What’s it mean to be rural? Nobody knows

“We know what we are, but not what we may be.” — William Shakespeare

Am I a city boy?

I come from Battle Creek, a city of more than 50,000 people situated in a county with a bit more than 130,000, but I never considered myself a big-city dweller.

Battle Creek has some urban sprawl, with development happening between the city center on the western edge of Calhoun County and FireKeepers Casino to the east. Some development’s happening to the west, too, between Battle Creek and the bigger Kalamazoo.

But my hometown always felt like a small place.

Battle Creek has two, maybe three buildings you might call skyscrapers, but my town looked nothing like the New York or Chicago or Detroit you saw on TV. Getting anywhere in Battle Creek takes 15 minutes, and, in those 15 minutes, you could drive straight into acres and acres of cornfield outside of town. We had crime — probably even a lot of crime — and a gang problem, but I never felt like I had to worry about getting mugged like you saw in big-city TV dramas.

It always made me chuckle when my Alpenan mother-in-law came to visit and called it “coming to the big city.” It’s all relative, I suppose.

But that relative perspective could have big implications about where the state and federal governments invest taxpayer money.

Last month, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Office of Rural Development released a report titled “Michigan’s Roadmap to Rural Prosperity” that outlined several steps needed to help rural areas thrive, including diversifying the workforce, expanding housing, building infrastructure (including broadband access), and protecting natural resources.

(The full report can be viewed at https://www.michigan.gov/leo/-/media/Project/Websites/leo/Documents/ord/Michigan-Roadmap-to-Rural-Prosperity_Report-FINAL.pdf?rev=6b56495a03584368ba09bb6e9ad0497d&hash=5A7E1BD1DFF096D8E0250AC172776E6D)

One would assume Whitmer’s team will at some point ask the Legislature to put some money behind those ideas. But where should the money go?

What is a rural place?

The report doesn’t answer that question and seems to contradict itself.

First, the report very specifically details the makeup of rural Michigan, saying 20% of the state’s population lives in rural areas, which encompass 94% of the state’s land area touching 70 of Michigan’s 83 counties and 3,300 miles of Great Lakes coastline. Some 50,000 farms, 155,000 businesses, two-thirds of Michigan’s K-12 school districts, and 21 colleges and universities call rural Michigan home, the report says.

You’d have to have some kind of working definition of “rural” to come up with specific numbers like that.

But then the report says there’s no one definition of rural: “For the purposes of this document and ORP programming and data analysis, the ORP has referred to multiple definitions or combinations of definitions to help tell the story in rural Michigan.”

Those “multiple definitions” paint very different pictures.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, offers five different maps of rural Michigan.

In a couple of the maps, based purely on population density, almost all of the state is considered rural, except for a few shaded areas where the state’s cities reside. In those maps, Alpena itself is considered “urban,” but the rest of Northeast Michigan is rural.

In another map, based on the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s definition of urban counties, about a third of Michigan is considered urban, and the rest — including everything north of the Arenac County to Mason County line — is considered rural. Alpena is considered rural in that map.

Another map, based on nearness to big cities, looks similar to the county-based map. Alpena’s considered rural in that map, too.

Then there’s the map of places ineligible for USDA Business and Industry programming, which shades in every Michigan city of more than 50,000 people and calls the rest rural.

Each of those maps has its problems.

The population density maps, for example, loop Alpena in with places like Battle Creek and Kalamazoo. But surely Alpena, more than an hour from the nearest interstate, has different problems than those other places.

But the county-based map poses issues, too. Surely tiny Mason, about 20 minutes from downtown Lansing, nonetheless has issues that its big Ingham County neighbor to the north doesn’t have.

It’s all relative.

I don’t envy the policymakers who have to figure this stuff out, who have to try to craft funding formulas that send the money where they want it to go in a fair way.

Perhaps the only fair way is to not target “rural” areas at all, since they can’t decide what “rural” means, and instead target the money to need. Poverty-fighting programs should go to places with high per-capita poverty. Broadband investments should go to places with low per-capita broadband availability, etc. According to the state report, Michigan’s small towns and farmland face many of those problems.

Or perhaps they should take into account not population density at all but instead resources. How much money per-capita does the city or county have already? Does the community have a wealth of charitable foundations? Surely, Michigan’s small towns have less than places like Battle Creek, which is home to the behemoth W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

“Rural” seems to be as much a feeling as a real definition. And it’s hard to spend money on a feeling.


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