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Kansas Faces Challenges for Growth

By Alan Cobb, Americans For Prosperity Kansas State Director

Many would describe that much of rural Kansas is in decline. Nearly 60 percent of the counties in Kansas have lost population just since 1990. Over half of Kansas’ counties have fewer residents today than 1900.

Just this week the Associated Press reported that stated Kansas is in real danger of losing a Congressional seat during the next reapportionment because of anemic population growth. Kansas population growth from 2000 to 2004 was only 1.7 percent while the nation as a whole grew 4.3 percent. Kansas’ annual growth of less than one-half of one percent should startle anyone concerned about the future of our fine State.

No matter how you measure growth, Kansas is struggling, particularly when compared to the other 50 states. Kansas is in the bottom ten among states in population growth, income growth and job growth. While I do not like to scream crisis, we, as a State, clearly have urgent needs that must be addressed soon.

The solutions to our growth problems will take time. There are no overnight fixes. Thus, we need to get started immediately.

For most Kansas communities, if they do not grow, they die. We might like to think the quaint small Kansas town depicted in Hollywood never grows or shrinks, but stays the same. That isn’t reality.

The changes and population decline are gradual but unmistakable.

I have heard a Kansas legislator comment that that’s just the way it is; Kansas is a rural, Great Plains state and rural, Great Plains states aren’t growing. That is not the case, but even if it were, I am not ready to accept that. It simply isn’t a fact that Kansas can not grow.

So, what are we to do about it? How can we encourage real economic development? How can we encourage population and income growth? Do we want population growth and economic development?

There are those who don’t want growth and the problems associated with it. They want their town to stay the same as it has for years. They like the comfortable and familiar feel.

Kansans move to places that provide economic and professional opportunities for themselves and their families. While the residents of a small Kansas town appear to enjoy their seemingly unchanging community, the most capable leave for places providing better economic possibilities and their former hometown slowly decays. These place Kansans move to are frequently in other states, but certainly are not in rural Kansas.

What are we to do about this? First we must decide that the lack of economic growth is a problem. And we must be brutally honest about the solutions. Are government grants the solution? Is the new convention center for the county seat a key for reversing the fortunes of the community?

We must take a hard look at systemic change to Kansas to being reversing the alarming trend.

Recently the Center for Applied Economics at the University of Kansas compared every Kansas County that borders another State. Except for the Kansas counties bordering Nebraska, the Kansas counties fared worse than their neighbors in Missouri, Colorado and Oklahoma when measuring economic activity, income growth and population growth.

Clearly the Colorado counties of Cheyenne and Kiowa are no different that Greeley and Wallace Counties in Kansas, yet the Colorado counties have experienced more growth than their Kansas counterparts. Are Texas and Beaver County, Oklahoma really any different than Morton, Seward and Meade Counties in Kansas? Why are the Oklahoma counties growing faster than their Kansas neighbors?

Overall, more people are moving out of Kansas than moving in to Kansas. If not for our birth rate exceeding our death rate, we would actually have negative population growth. And without the growth in Johnson County, our State would not be growing at all.

Why is that? Are we, as a State, willing to honestly assess our State’s strengths and weaknesses and make the necessary policy changes needed for growth?

Without any changes to the path we’re on, rural Kansas faces a bleak future.

I am not willing to accept the declining status quo as the best we can do, and I don’t think most Kansans are either.

What are we prepared to do?

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