With population dropping in rural Midwest, Kansas employs new strategy to curb trend

Kansas lawmakers are hoping the creation of Rural Opportunity Zones will help address a long-time concern in many parts of the state: the loss of population.

Stateline Midwest: Vol. 20, No. 4: April 2011

One constituent had just called Sen. Jeff King to tell him about having to leave rural southeast Kansas due to a lack of broadband access. Another sent an e-mail worried about losing the local grocery store.

These stories have become all too familiar to King, who represents a part of the state that is experiencing steep declines in population.

“It is not a topic of conversation for people in these communities; it is the topic of conversation for us,” King, whose legislative district comprises parts of nine counties, says about the continuing population loss.

“People are worried they are going to lose their schools, their courthouse, their grocery store. There is a real sense not only of uncertainty, but of fear.”

Recently released 2010 Census data show that southeast Kansas is not alone.

Although the Midwest grew in population by 3.9 percent, compared to the national average of 9.7 percent, county-by-county data show that many counties in this region underwent a decline between 2000 and 2010 — sometimes 10 percent or more.

More than any other part of the country, the Great Plains is where declines have been the most widespread and severe. In North Dakota, during a decade in which the state added 30,000 people, only 11 of the state’s 53 counties added people.

“The majority of growth was in our larger urban areas,” says Richard Rathge, director of the North Dakota State Census Data Center. “I was hoping for a different portrait.”

A more even distribution of population growth seemed possible, too, as the result of the economic boom occurring in western North Dakota due to a rise in oil production. Yet some rural counties even in this region of the state saw their population numbers fall.

Rathge says more detailed data are still needed before determining the impact, or lack of impact, that the state’s economic gains have had on population trends. For example, if the number of young adults (ages 19 to 31) is growing in rural areas of the state — or at least declining less than in previous years — that would be a good sign.

But it is already clear that the decades-old problem of dwindling population numbers will continue in many rural areas in North Dakota, Kansas and other parts of the Midwest.

As Rathge notes, this decline is problematic because migration patterns tend to be “age selective”: more younger people leave, more older people stay.

“That results in a skewed population with very significant economic implications,” he says.

And these trends tend to generate a negative momentum to them — as young people leave, businesses move, and vice versa. Economic opportunity is the primary factor in determining why people leave and where they move, Rathge says, followed by family and friends and quality-of-life amenities.

But there are other factors that can inhibit growth. In western North Dakota, for example, the region is now dealing with a housing shortage, Rathge says.

Kansas’ new Rural Opportunity Zones
In Kansas, lawmakers are trying a new approach to revitalize some of its hardest-hit rural areas.

Fifty counties, all of which experienced population declines of 8 percent or more between 2000 and 2009, have been designated as rural opportunity zones.

SB 198, signed into law in March, includes two provisions to attract people to these areas. The first provides a full income tax exemption to out-of-state residents who relocate to these counties. Under the second provision, the state and participating local counties will repay up to $15,000 in student loans for individuals who move to a rural opportunity zone upon graduation from a post-secondary institution. The student loan program is contingent on approval by the county, which would split the cost of the loan repayments with the state.

King believes SB 198 will make rural Kansas more appealing to out-of-state retirees, who may already be attracted to its lower costs and natural amenities (hunting and fishing, for example). He is also hopeful that small businesses will think about relocating to or expanding in the rural opportunity zones.

“There is not a large answer to this problem, but there are a lot of small ones,” King says. “We are trying to preserve a dying way of life. There is no other way of putting it.”

King points to several areas where he believes the state can lend a hand: tailoring economic development programs and incentives to meet the needs of rural communities, expanding broadband access, and cultivating strong leadership at the local level.

“Urban Kansas relies on the quality of rural Kansas’ schools to have a well-trained workforce,” King adds.

“Beyond that, though, there a lot of people from urban Kansas who come from the rural areas, and they want to see those areas survive. We see that in the Legislature. Talk to an urban legislator, and a lot of times you find that he or she came from a rural part of the state.”