CACTUS, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – A number of communities across the High Plains became rural at the end of December, but not because people left. Instead, it’s because the US Census Bureau changed how it defines urban areas in the biggest modification in decades.

While the Census Bureau adjusts its definitions every decade to address changes or needs of policymakers and researchers, the recent changes included erasing the century-old “urban cluster” distinction and adding housing units to the definition of an urban area. Alongside raising the threshold for which areas can be considered urban, the combined changes resulted in more than 1,100 cities, towns, and villages in the country losing their urban status.

Cactus, Canadian, Friona, Fritch, Spearman, and Tulia were among the Texas towns impacted by the change, according to the released lists from the bureau – but what exactly does this mean?

Because the Census Bureau’s definitions tend to guide how the federal government categorizes communities, the changes mean more than an edit to a label. For the people who remain in the areas with a changed status, researchers, and policymakers, it means a shift in data collection and in funding.

As previously reported by the Associated Press, the old criteria from the bureau said that an urbanized area needed to have at least 50,000 residents. An urban cluster was defined as having at least 2,500 people, a threshold that had been around since 1910.

However, the new criteria erased the “urban cluster” distinction and defined an urban area as one with 5,000 people. A place can also be considered ‘urban’ if it has at least 2,000 housing units, based on the calculation that the average household has 2.5 people.

This change could mean the difference in whether or not a community is eligible for different types of federal funding for things like transportation, housing, healthcare, education, and agriculture.

Some experts said that the change could limit the number of rural health clinics, which could lead to a lack of care available for communities and add stress to rural health centers that have already been buffeted by increased transmission rates for COVID-19, the flu, and RSV. In Texas, some newly-rural customers may be at risk of losing satellite phone services.

However, the impacted areas might also have new funding avenues opened to them, such as through the US Department of Agriculture’s rural development grants and programs. Further, the National Association of Towns & Townships published a guide for grants that rural communities may be eligible for, ranging from rural development and healthcare to broadband and water.

More information on the US Census Bureau data can be found on its website, as well as other resources regarding the census and legislative districts.