You all know Helen Back. She’s at every neighborhood meeting. Starts with a long introduction to her statement and then launches a tale of neglect by the authorities. Her cause is always a matter of genuine importance about which few are concerned.

Recently, Helen has been outraged in Indianapolis about the inclusion of Madison (Anderson) and Putnam (Greencastle) counties in the Indy Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). She rose up in Evansville to protest the exclusion of Gibson County from the Evansville MSA. She spoke most vigorously at several meetings in Lake County about the injustice of including Lake and three other Indiana counties in the Chicago MSA.

Many people recall, with either amusement or antagonism, years ago when she disputed the creation of two MSA (South Bend-Mishawaka and Elkhart-Goshen) where she thought there ought to be only one.

The real target of Helen’s ire is the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which decides on the inclusion or exclusion of specific counties in an MSA. Those decisions, based largely on population size (50,000 or more persons) and commuting patterns, are considered critically important for the communities involved.

You ask, “Why?” and Helen will recite a long list of federal funds and regulations that apply to MSAs and exclude counties beyond their boundaries. “Money,” she is fond of saying, “is the root of all bureaucracy.”

The MSA designation is sought for the money and the prestige of being considered Metropolitan, with all the sophistication and veneer of modernity attached to that word. (I find it difficult to equate Gadsden, Alabama, with Fort Wayne, but that may reflect only on my Hoosier ignorance.)

Helen knows the MSA designation, at one time, had the same prestige value as the MBA label award by universities. The MBA offered entry into the corporate world; the MSA was a badge certifying commercial importance. But, how can the MSA label be so valuable with 383 communities so designated?

In addition, OMB has gone further with 576 communities identified as Micropolitan areas (generally a single county) including a central core place of 10,000 to 50,000 persons. Indiana has 25 Micro areas including Connersville, Logansport, and Seymour.

“What’s next?” Helen has asked. “Minniepolitan places?”

Probably in 2023, using data from the 2020 Census, we’ll get a new list of Metro and Micro areas. There will be new entries to both lists as populations grow and shift while commuting patterns change. A few areas may go down a step, but that will be fought vigorously by the affected communities.

The funds attached to these designations have forced local governments to participate in regional groupings. They have failed, however, to develop real regional thinking among the people and the politicians of our cities and counties.

Helen Back has gone so far as to suggest federal troops for a new era of Reconstruction for recalcitrant governments.

Morton Marcus is an economist. Reach him at Follow his views and those of John Guy on “Who gets what?” wherever podcasts are available or at

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