A recent state survey of young adults has clarified a problem and reset some thinking on life in rural Kansas – why they live there and why the choice might have been difficult. The survey, by the state’s Office of Rural Prosperity with help from the Kansas Sampler Foundation, was published in early August. It sheds light on the trials of convincing younger people to live and work in remote places.
From 1960 to 1990, rural population losses cost Kansas two of its six seats in the U.S. House; central and western counties, particularly along the northern tier, had population losses of 25 percent or higher. Many factors contributed: interstate highways siphoned travel away from towns along older established routes; rail service slowed, then stopped, throttling commerce; family farms were muscled over by corporate agriculture; longstanding local businesses dried up as time marched on. Opportunity flagged, and people moved away.
The casualties would include clothing and drug stores, the five and dime, appliance stores, automobile and farm implement dealers, feed stores, the hardware store, restaurants, movie houses, the grocery store, dry cleaner and more. The family business had gone the way of the family farm. Local economies were rolled into the veins of corporate trade. Small towns were getting smaller and life in them harder: 30 or 40 miles for groceries or prescriptions, or a belt for the auger, a new crescent wrench, a trip to the doctor, the nursing home . In many places, school began with an hour on the bus.
The 2020 Census continues the litany of depopulation across the state’s rural west, central and southeast. Only a heave of growth in the metropolitan northeast allowed Kansas its meager (three percent) overall gain in population.
The Rural Prosperity study sought the views of Kansans aged 21-39, covered all 105 counties, prompted 460 responses and 175 supplemental interviews. The troubles cited had a familiar ring – little or no affordable housing; lack of access to high-speed Internet (broadband); lack of child care. There are worries about access to medical care, better groceries, more local services and retail trade, the basic amenities that improve life in a small community.
The surveyors seek to address trouble to prevent “out-migration” and to invigorate expanding, local economies. They want a bright future for young Kansans, no matter the size of their towns. The tricky part, according to one section of the survey, lies in the attitude of a place, of embracing a “culture of open minds and positivity.”
Those surveyed said rural Kansas needs a culture, or “ecosystem,” to support and strengthen the capacity of rural cities.” We are part of a global society, and people from elsewhere can be a part of our place if we accept them, get to know them, value them.
We need a new philosophy of examining challenges, said Marci Penner, of the Kansas Sampler Foundation. Change must go beyond high-speed Internet, affordable housing and child care. “Does your town like itself?” she asked. “Does it welcome people to town?”
It’s a gently way of saying, open up. Start listening to young people and start believing in them. And towns may well be asked to help them. State and federal grants and local tax dollars – revolving loan funds, professional consulting services, experts in securing grants – can be a source of help for small businesses and new ventures operated by young entrepreneurs.
Improvement will require an investment but consider the price of doing little or nothing. A lot of places go broke trying to go cheap.
The Rural Prosperity survey is a newer way to promote an old idea: Promise can happen out on the sparsely settled plains if only we help it along. This can start with confronting the long-worn attitude that the boondocks are a landscape of small places, the faded imperfect versions of something big.
A town is almost always old, but a city is more likely to be new. The old rural towns in Kansas acquired their ripeness early, in times long ago. But in the northeast the old towns, such as Olathe, Lenexa, and Mission, melded almost overnight into a metroplex and became cities; they have kept their newness overlong, concealing somehow the fact that they have become another sort of retarded development.
Cities are no longer permitted the natural course for things to grow old. On the plains, a town may have fewer sharp changes of spirit, leaving it open to charges of being backward. The Rural Prosperity study seems to be saying that while a town may view sharp change with suspicion, careful change is needed and up for discussion. It’s past time for some serious planning. It’s also a matter of life or leaving, for good.