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Opinion: Madera: From metro to micro?

For The Madera Tribune

Of the 144 proposed micropolises, the five in California are Madera, Hanford, San Luis Obispo, Napa, and Chico.


Unless a bipartisan Congressional committee is successful in its plea to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the City of Madera will be downgraded from its present status as a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). If we lose that designation, there will be negative economic, cultural, and social consequences. You may wonder why the OMB is in charge of such things, and the reason is that MSA’s are allotted more federal money than are cities and towns that don’t qualify for this rating.

Classifying urban areas

The classification of urban areas into discrete entities began in 1950 when the Bureau of the Census decided to be more specific in describing the settlement patterns of Americans than simply referring to them as either urban or rural. When Elbert Stewart and I wrote the first edition of our “Introduction to Sociology,” we described the new classification system, stating that “much of the nation’s population was counted as inhabitants of Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSA). The SMSA is a largely nonagricultural area containing a ‘mother city’ or a pair of twin cities of at least 50,000 population.”

In 1950, 14 SMSA’s were identified, but by 1970 that number had grown to 247 because the migration of Americans from farm to city accelerated as returning World War II veterans increasingly found employment in urban factories and other places of business.

Then, in 1960, the OMB added the classification of SCSA (Standard Consolidated Statistical Area) to describe the merging together of two of more SMSA’s. At the time, only two SCSA’s were recognized; one was centered on New York City and the other on Chicago.

In the mid-1980’s, the OMB began calling SMSA’s simply MSA’s (Metropolitan Statistical Areas) and SCSA’s as CSA’s (Consolidated Statistical Areas, which are now known as Combined Statistical Areas). When the 2020 Census was taken, there were 392 MSA’s and 175 CSA’s as the urbanization of the nation continued. For example, in 1950 about half of all Americans (49.8 percent) lived in MSA’s; according to the 2020 Census, now 86 percent live in an urban area with a “mother city” of 50,000 or more.

Micropolitan areas

In his 1990 book, “The Rating Guide to Life in America’s Small Cities,” G. Scott Thomas used the term “micropolitan areas” to describe smaller cities that had a decidedly metropolitan lifestyle with a core city of at least 10,000 but less than 50,000 population. He pointed out that lower land and labor costs led some micropolitan areas to develop housing subdivisions and suburban cultures similar to those found in the larger MSA’s.

In 2003, the OMB tasked the Census Bureau to track micropolitan areas as well as MSA’s because of perceived population shifts from huge urban areas to smaller ones. Previously, people who lived outside MSA’s were considered to be residents of “suburbs” or “exurbs,” which were not linked to some kind of central urban cluster. The Census Bureau’s official name for a micropolitan area is Core-Based Statistical Area (CBSA). However, although MSA and CSA are commonly used as abbreviations for the large areas of population, mSA (the Greek letter for “m” followed by SA) is employed to identify a Micropolitan Statistical Area.

At this writing, the OMB is recommending that an MSA must have a “mother” city of at least 100,000 population. Nationwide, 144 cities may be declassified as MSA’s and reclassified as CBSA’s. Included are five cities in California: Madera, population 78,413; Hanford, with 87,941 people; San Luis Obispo, 58,249; Napa, 89,913; and Chico, 98,176. The population that is cited is that reported by OMB and may differ from local estimates.

Fresno-Madera CSA

While reclassification for Madera is reason enough to want to block the OMB’s plans, “demoting” Madera from an MSA to a CBSA has greater ramifications. Fresno and Madera are the “mother cities” for the Fresno-Madera CSA. If Madera becomes a CBSA, then Fresno will be a stand-alone MSA. That will have a negative effect on federal spending on both metropolitan areas. But the effect on Madera will be more severe than the effect on Fresno.

George Hammond, an economist at the University of Arizona, states, “This is a big concern for local policymakers and economic developers. If a metropolitan area is redefined as a micropolitan area, it may fall out of the conversation. There is less buzz. There’s less knowledge that the (area) exists nationwide.” And, in turn, this has implications for federal funding for housing development, transportation, Medicare reimbursement, and other programs related to economic development.

Policies adopted by the federal government often don’t make sense to me. For example, currently Fresno-Madera is a CSA. Merced-Modesto is also a CSA. However, the areas are contiguous. So why do they not form one larger CSA, like Los Angeles-Long Beach-San Bernardino-Riverside? I suspect that political economics plays a role. Larger CSA’s attract more federal dollars than smaller CSA’s, MSA’s (like Bakersfield, which is not contiguous with any other MSA), or CBSA’s.

If Madera loses its standing as an MSA that is part of the Fresno-Madera CSA, it’s economic and political importance will be dramatically reduced, even from its current relatively low level. We will also have less name recognition for businesses that are searching for new locations, less funding for low-income housing, and less support for shelters for homeless people, battered women, and other social needs.

What can be done?

It’s encouraging that a bipartisan Congressional committee is challenging the OMB’s attempt to change the definition of Metropolitan Statistical Areas, but the Senators on the committee do not represent a lot of citizens. The Republicans include two senators from South Dakota, two from North Dakota, one from Nebraska, and one from Wyoming. The Democrats are the two senators from Arizona. So far, only two members of the House of Representatives have signed: one from South Dakota and one from Nebraska.

If you agree that Madera should retain its current status, please contact our federal representative and encourage him to add his name to the bipartisan committee. Congressman Jim Costa’s local office is located at 855 M St., Ste. 940, Fresno, CA 93721, and his phone number is 495-1620.

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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at


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