Pine Belt News, Hattiesburg

Washington, D.C. Officials Back Off Against Proposed Metropolitan Statistical Area Definition Change

By Haskel Burns

Officials from the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C. have decided against a proposal to change the current definition of a Metropolitan Statistical Area, which would have eliminated that status from more than 140 cities across the country - including Hattiesburg - making funding and other matters more difficult.

The decision not to implement the change - which would have doubled the minimum population requirement for a MSA from 50,000 to 100,000 - was made on July 13.

Local and state officials had previously spoken out against the proposal, saying the definition change could cause cities like Hattiesburg - with a population of slightly more than 50,000 in its urbanized area - to receive a negative effect in federal funding and would hinder economic development opportunities. Among those officials was Mayor Toby Barker, who testified before the Senate Commerce Committee in March.

“During my testimony … it was clear that this potential change was one that raised concerns for policymakers on both sides of the aisle,” Barker said. “The implications for Hattiesburg were far-reaching and harmful.

“It would have hindered our area’s efforts in economic development, as well as our ability to recruit and retain talent. It would have also created one more obstacle in applying for federal grant opportunities that tie grant eligibility to MSA status. Today’s report that the OMB is backing off the proposed rule change is a win for Hattiesburg and 143 other metro areas across the United States.”

As an example of successful talent recruitment with MSA status, a recent 24/7 Wall Street study ranked Hattiesburg No. 2 in the nation in job creation from February to November 2020.

“That was very good exposure for our community, and it put us on the map, with potential relocation and site selection by companies,” Barker said in previous story. “However, if we did not have Metropolitan Statistical Area status, we would have never made that list to begin with - we’d have never been highlighted for having that kind of job growth.

“So for Hattiesburg and 143 other communities, this rule change would take us out of having MSA status, and relegate us to having some sort of micropolitan, rural community. Think about that from a nationwide perspective: we have just under 400 MSAs right now, and you’re talking about taking away 144 of those. That’s a hit for a lot of states.”

Also back in March, a bipartisan group of 25 U.S. Senators - including Mississippi’s Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith - sent a letter encouraging OMB acting director Rob Fairweather to abandon plans for the definition change.

“Though the consideration of non-statistical uses is not the priority of OMB, ignoring the unwritten effects that MSAs have on the decision-making process of our government would cause major disruptions with grant and entitlement programs, medical reimbursements, economic development, housing initiatives and more,” the senators wrote. “The MSA metric has become a critical tool so broadly used that changing it without considering its far-reaching impacts is short-sighted.

“While initially it may seem as though some areas could easily retain MSA status under the proposed new threshold of 100,000, it later becomes clear that the 100,000-population benchmark is not applied to the entirety of the MSA. Instead, this standard is placed only on the ‘core Census Bureau-delineated urban area,’ or the geographical boundary within the MSA which retains the highest population density. While a MSA may have a population of well over 100,000, if the core of the area does not meet this limited criteria, the area will be removed of its MSA status."