Kansas towns face population decreases


Editor’s Note: This article was completed as an assignment for a class in the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

Tyler York, former K-State student, knew that returning to his hometown in southwestern Kansas was not going to be a viable option when he had to choose a career path.

This mentality seems typical among many students in the region. Those who attend college leave in droves and never return. Others depart in search of better opportunities, but few make the decision to stay or return to improve their communities.

The drying up of industry facilitates similar moves for innumerable amounts of families. The reality is apparent.

Rural Kansas is engulfed in a struggle for survival.

Harsh truths

The trends are long and staggering. Almost two-thirds of Kansas counties had their peak population at or before 1930. It has been a slow and steady decline ever since. Data from the 2010 U.S. Census shows that 77 counties lost population in the past 10 years. Those losses eclipsed 10 percent for 23 counties.

But, the state has grown 6 percent since 2010. This is 5 to 6 percent lower than the national average according to Laszlo Kulcsar, associate professor of sociology and director of the Kansas Population Center.

Growth is also concentrated in the state’s select urban areas. Looming demographic trends are poised to have a greater influence on the state as a result.

“Some places will be better prepared to take the consequences,” he said, as struggles with population are correlated to economic issues.

“Agriculture is very successful in these places which means that it displaces other industries,” Kulcsar said. “Because of that, if you do not want to work in agriculture, you will have trouble finding a job.”

Jobs in agriculture are becoming more challenging to find as well. From 2002 to 2007, Kansas lost 10,000 full-time farmers according to an April 1, 2011 Hutchinson News article. Urbanization has driven these numbers for years. Twenty-five percent of the U.S. population lived on farms in the 1930s; today the number is lower than 2 percent. Technological advances have made agriculture an increasingly less labor-intensive industry while also requiring a higher quality of workers.

“You have to have people that are competent,” said Bob Burton, professor in agricultural economics. “You would not want to put someone that is not that good on a $200,000 tractor. They might wreck it.”

The desire for greater efficiency has led to a variety of technological improvements at many farms, including the Phelon family farm near Melvern, Kan. All tractors now include global positioning systems to aide in spraying crops and fertilizer application. Other equipment has also been updated in various ways to improve efficiency. Additionally, the farm uses genetically modified crops to ease the stress of maintenance and increase yield. Future growth and success is dependent on farms continuing to be run by family members.

Something that is increasingly less of a reality.

“Since this (urbanization) is happening, many farms will be forced to shut down and turn the reins over to someone else,” said Adam Phelon, a former K-State student. “It is family farms that keep this country fed, and when there is no one left to take over, production stops.”

Meanwhile, businesses and industry are reluctant to move to Kansas. While this is predominately an issue in rural portions of the state, struggles have gripped the state’s few metropolitan areas.

A Jan. 27, 2005 Christian Science Monitor article chronicled the state’s struggles with an urban focus. Sprint and Boeing, two major employers in the Kansas City and Wichita metro areas, made announcements in close succession about decisions to relocate portions of their operations elsewhere.

Similar to the state’s rural regions, population is largely attributed as the culprit.

While larger communities help foster economic growth through a chamber of commerce, rural areas must combat the issue in a different fashion.

Linda Sutton works as a consultant for the North Central Kansas Small Business Development Center. Based in Concordia, Sutton travels across the north-central part of the state and works with 11 counties on starting up or maintaining existing businesses. The center offers a variety of services to accomplish this including training seminars and workshops. Sutton, who has worked for a Fortune 500 Company and owned a business, stresses the importance of starting new businesses or maintaining existing offerings.

“I really would not like to see small towns lose their businesses on Main Street,” she said. “Whenever a key business closes in a rural town, the likelihood of it opening again it is unlikely.”

Businesses offer a variety of services to a small community including easing life for older populations. The state’s senior population is projected to increase 58 percent by 2030. Those seniors have a higher concentration in rural areas than the average population, according to Sara Arif, director of public affairs for the Kansas Department of Aging.

The department’s state plan for federal fiscal years 2010-2013 projects all 105 counties to experience some degree of increase in the amount of individuals 85 years and older. The percentages range from 10 to 210 percent from 2000 to 2025.

Health options are also very limited.

“There is a lack of specialized medicine in smaller towns, along with a lack of hospitals in many of the towns in western Kansas,” Arif said. “There is also a huge lack of choices and options for older adults in terms of housing, care setting and the type of care they receive.”

Kulcsar has researched aging populations in rural areas. The research focused on Kansas where aging populations are becoming a more prevalent issue. An increase in retirees in some communities has eroded the tax base forcing the cessation of certain services. The research project also focused on a marketing campaign urging retirees to retire to the Flint Hills.

“That sounds really great, but these Kansas places are competing against thousands of other places around the country,” Kulcsar said.

The communities of Kansas are also struggling as community leaders retire or scale back their civic engagement. Largely a result of declining young professional populations, it has worried many including York.

“Over the past few years I have wondered who from my generation will replace those like my father when he can no longer lead,” he said, referring to his father’s role as a strong community figure.