Murphy: What’s Wrong with Kansas?

May 14, 2018 11:30 AM
 
Nothing that doesn’t afflict much of rural America: depopulation, lack of economic development and a ‘brain drain’ of educated young people leaving town. But there are solutions to be pursued.

One of the analyses that followed the 2016 presidential election was the impact of “forgotten Americans,” mainly the residents of rural Midwestern and Western states who are struggling with economic hardships and a future that looks increasingly bleak.

A well-sourced article that explored the problems facing farm country recently appeared in Mother Jones magazine, a publication many conservatives hate, but in this case, turned in some excellent journalism.

The premise of the article, “Rural Kansas is dying. I drove 1,800 miles to find out why,” is that the once bustling small towns of western Kansas are shriveling up like flowers someone forgot to water. The cause: depopulation.

Some statistics offered in the story are sobering:

  • Population growth in Kansas is among the lowest in the U.S., according to data from Wichita State University, at less than 0.9% annually, and nearly all of that is concentrated in urban areas of Kansas City, Topeka and Wichita.
  • In the next generation, Kansas may be facing annual growth rates of less than 0.4%, barely above population maintenance.
  • Kansas is losing 25 to 29-year-olds faster than any other state in the Union, according to reporting from U.S. News & World Report, which bodes ill for the future of both rural and urban areas of the state.

In the western two-thirds of the state, there are 55 counties with populations of less than 10 people per square mile, according to the most recent Census data. Wallace, Greeley, Clark, Comanche, Rawlins and Lane counties all have less than 2.3 people per square mile.

For comparison, that’s similar to the population densities of Mongolia or Namibia and slightly above that of Iceland or Siberia.

The article went on in some detail describing the deserted main streets of Kansas farm country, the peeling house paint and the boarded-up shop windows in so many rural towns that are slowly dying from the deterioration of its business base, its schools and its community institutions—all resulting from the fact that far fewer people live there anymore.

Understanding the Causes
The big question, of course, is how did that happen? Kansas remains one of the most intensely farmed, most agriculturally productive of all the states, producing 40% of the entire U.S. winter wheat crop, and 20% of all wheat exported overseas. Only Iowa and North Dakota have more acreage under cultivation.

Three factors have emptied out the state:

  1. Technology. The use of farm machinery and sophisticated software over the last 30 or 40 years has dramatically reduced the need for human labor on the farm.
  2. Commodity crops. With the emphasis on growing wheat and corn (and elsewhere on soybeans, cotton and rice), farmers need to get bigger or get out, and volatile commodity prices cause serious problems for farms leveraging serious debt loads needed to purchase all the high-end machinery needed to farm thousands of acres.
  3. Lack of state funding. Agree or disagree, Kansas politicians have made a concerted effort to scale back government funding for everything from K-12 education to rural business development to infrastructure improvements. As tax revenues have been rolled back, it’s the rural areas of the state, unable to attract new businesses, that suffer the most.

There’s no stopping the progress of technology, and it’s hardly limited to agriculture. In manufacturing, for example, U.S. productivity — and output — has continued to improve, even as the number of jobs required to produce those manufactured goods has remained stagnant, at best.

However, agricultural diversity, which includes specialties such as organic farming and cultivation of heritage crops (and livestock), is one way to offer opportunities for a new generation of farmers, while providing the chance to operate farms that don’t need to cultivate thousands of acres to turn a profit.

Interestingly, the only non-urban areas of Kansas showing economic growth are located in the southwestern area of the state, where feedlots and meatpacking plants generate jobs and prosperity. That prosperity might not always be for the mostly immigrant workforce employed in those plants, but certainly for the small-town businesses dependent on the local population for support.

Politically, Kansas is tentatively beginning to reverse its previous commitment to slashing taxes and shrinking government, and funding is beginning to be restored for rural development projects in the hardest hit areas of the state.

But in the end, not only do policies need to be aligned with the promotion of agricultural diversity, but urban consumers need to understand that supporting their state’s farmers, buying locally grown produce and appreciating, rather than condemning, the meat industry would benefit not just farm country, but everyone else as well.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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