Feds will keep definition of metro at 50,000-person minimum


ORLANDO, Fla. — Facing criticism from small cities that feared losing status and funding, the federal government said Tuesday that it won’t raise the population threshold for what qualifies as a metro area.

The Office of Budget and Management said it will keep the minimum population needed in a community’s core city at 50,000 residents in order to be designated a “metropolitan statistical area.”

The federal government had been considering doubling that threshold to 100,000 people. Under that earlier proposal, 144 cities with core populations of 50,000 to 99,000 were at risk of becoming “micropolitan statistical areas” instead.

Leaders of metro areas like Bismarck, N.D.; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Auburn, Alabama, had worried the change would cause real harm, preventing urban areas from getting designated federal funding and making them less attractive for economic development.

Sens. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, and Mark Kelly, a Democrat from Arizona, introduced legislation in June that would have stopped the Office of Budget and Management from making the change.

But federal statisticians recommending the change had said it was long overdue, given that the U.S. population has more than doubled since the 50,000-person threshold was introduced in 1950. Back then, about half of U.S. residents lived in metros; now, 86% do.

Updates to these standards are considered every decade. Even though the proposal was made during the Trump administration, and put on hold in the Biden administration, statisticians say any changes to the standards aren’t based on politics.

Of the 734 public comments the Office of Budget and Management received about the proposed change, 97% opposed it, the agency said Tuesday in a notice of its decision.

“Of the commenters who did cite a rationale for their opposition, almost all cited a non-statistical rationale, such as concerns about loss of federal or other funding; concerns about other programmatic consequences; and concerns about economic development for individual areas that would be reclassified from metropolitan to micropolitan,” the notice said.

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