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March 2013

Is bigger better? Met Council's Todd Graham looks at the new Minneapolis-St. Paul MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area)

Todd GrahamTo coordinate regional planning and services, the Minnesota State Legislature has defined the Twin Cities metro region as the 7-county area of Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott, and Washington counties. The 7-county region is the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Council and is the default used on Minnesota Compass.

There is also a federally-defined Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area) to compare economic regions. On Minnesota Compass we use this larger, 13-county MSA for comparisons with other major metro areas across the nation.

Todd Graham, Metropolitan Council’s principal demographer, explains the MSA and shares his view of the recent expansion of the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington MSA from 13 counties to 16 counties.

Q: What are metropolitan statistical areas? Where did they come from?

A: We have long recognized that economic regions extend beyond principal cities and political boundaries. Metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) were conceived as economic-geographic categorizations, for use in government statistics compilation and comparison of economic regions. Standardized rules for the designation of MSAs, as well as the evaluation of MSAs' extent, are managed by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Q: What areas qualify as metropolitan?

A: MSAs have one or several core counties with a substantial level of urbanization, a core urban population over 50,000, and a concentration of economic activity. Outlying counties may be added if core area workplaces draw in more than 25 percent of outlying counties' commuting residents.

Q: What does the federal government consider the extent of our Twin Cities metropolitan statistical area?

A: In 1958, the Minneapolis-St. Paul MSA was evaluated to include five counties: Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, and Washington. In the decades since, additional counties have been added: Carver, Chisago, Isanti, Scott, Sherburne, and Wright counties in Minnesota, and St. Croix and Pierce counties in Wisconsin. This year, the Twin Cities MSA has expanded to 16 counties, with the addition of LeSueur, Mille Lacs, and Sibley counties in Minnesota.
The additions not only reflect the growing reach of the Twin Cities' economy and commuter sheds, but also changing thresholds and criteria of “metropolitan” eligibility. For example, census analysis reveals a few thousand Mille Lacs residents commute to work in Anoka, Sherburne, and Wright counties. Commuters from Mille Lacs are a very small group -- they hold 0.2 percent of Twin Cities jobs -- but just enough to qualify Mille Lacs County as an outlying county within the orbit of the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington MSA.

Q: Does the federal re-definition of our metropolitan statistical area make sense?

A: For the past two decades, the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington MSA was a contiguous group of counties, with a reasonably shaped geographic extent, arrayed around two major cities. Not coincidentally, the 13 metropolitan counties were (and remain) the top 13 sources of workforce available to Twin Cities employers.

The new MSA redefinition loosens criteria for consideration of metropolitan counties. Mille Lacs and Sibley counties are the 20th and 21st top origins of commuting workers. Meanwhile, the 14th, 15th, and 16th top commuter sources for Twin Cities workplaces – Rice, Stearns, and McLeod counties – remain separate from the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington MSA. These three have their own principal cities, and enough internal economic “gravity” that they qualify as independently named areas: the Faribault Micropolitan Area, the St. Cloud MSA, and the Hutchinson Micropolitan Area.

Q: When will statistical agencies begin publishing statistics for new 2013 MSAs?

A: Federal statistical agencies are to begin using new MSAs as soon as practical – the roll out will vary among the agencies that use MSAs. The first U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics release to use the new MSAs will be the monthly employment and unemployment numbers for January 2014.

Q: How will this affect the national comparison data on Compass?

A: The populations of the counties added to the Minneapolis-St.Paul-Bloomington MSA are relatively small, but the new looser criteria may have a bigger impact on MSAs in other parts of the country, which may in turn impact our rankings on everything from median income, volunteerism, and the homeownership gap.


Opinions expressed in Minnesta Compass guest columns do not necessarily reflect the views of Minnesota Compass. Compass welcomes a range of views about issues pertaining to quality of life in Minnesota.

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