Politicians say they can stop rural Kansas population declines, but the dropoff continues
Forces pushing rural decline are much bigger than state incentives and small-town organizing.
HUMBOLDT, Kansas — This town is the exception that proves the rule.
Its slight uptick in population in recent years driven by efforts to make this Allen County town of just under 2,000 people buzz a little with chic restaurants and shops bucks trends that define rural Kansas.
A group called A Bolder Humboldt spent years revitalizing with a layer of hipster sheen on a handful of older buildings that would otherwise sit vacant and crumbling.
“There was a sense of, ‘Let's make the town that we want to live in,’” said Paul Cloutier, a leader of the group.
The efforts have seen moderate success, with the town generating buzz beyond its borders and drawing notice from The New York Times as “an unexpected and affordable oasis of cool surrounded by fields of wheat and soybeans.”
It’s behind the rarest of trends: a rural Kansas county experiencing slight — 0.5% — population growth in recent years after seeing a marked dropoff the decade before.
But Humboldt remains a rarity.
In 2014, when he was the governor of Kansas, Sam Brownback made the bold prediction that the state would soon reach a new population milestone — Kansas would surpass a population of 3 million by 2020.
Three years after the date he predicted, Kansas is still waiting for that three-millionth Kansan. U.S. Census figures show Kansas had a population of 2.93 million people in 2020. That’s an increase of just 85,000 residents in a decade — driven by growth in its larger cities and suburbs, not its small towns.
Rural parts of the state continue to see significant declines. People like Cloutier and some state officials are trying to staunch the seemingly endless bleeding.
Politicians have also homed in on issues they think are to blame. Republican lawmakers contend taxes push people to leave the state. And Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly argued new laws restricting transgender rights scare away businesses and new residents.
But Ken Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire, suggests the plummet of rural population is much bigger than any state policy. In the grand scheme of things, it comes down to a simple truth — young people like to move to bigger and brighter cities.
“Many rural counties,” Johnson said, “especially rural farm counties — of which there are a number in Kansas — typically are more likely to lose young adults than anyone else.”
Reimagining rural life
A Bolder Humboldt has led several projects that turned historic buildings with rough looks into shiny new destinations for out-of-towners.
The Honeybee Bruncherie is a good example. Sitting in the northeast corner of downtown Humboldt, the restaurant features a bespoke look. Cloutier said it’s the kind of bright and vibrant restaurant you would never expect to see in a small town.
Several other restaurants, coffee shops and bars supported by the group take on a similar aesthetic. And the town now boasts a community garden and a fitness center with an architecturally progressive design.
“(The organization) works to revitalize the town,” Cloutier said, “restart the economic engine, and also just sort of give energy to the community to bring that vitality back to town.”
The group’s efforts appear to be working. Humboldt has a strong reputation in other parts of the state. And after losing more than 6% of its population in the last decade, census numbers now project actual growth in Allen County.
But Humboldt may only be able to grow so much. The town doesn’t have enough new homes for people to move into, and construction prices run higher in rural areas than in cities and suburbs. That could bring the community’s growth to a screeching halt.
“We have people who want to move here,” Cloutier said. “But there’s just not enough of a demand yet to justify building new houses.”
That’s a problem the state wants to address.
Roadblocks and resources
Kansas launched the Office of Rural Prosperity in 2019 to help revitalize rural parts of the state.
Through that office, the state invested hundreds of millions of dollars in housing for rural areas in recent years. It’s also revamped downtown areas to attract customers to smaller communities.
The state also tempts people to move to smaller towns by forgiving up to $15,000 of student loan debt through its Rural Opportunity Zones, which were created during Brownback’s first term in 2012 and includes the vast majority of the rural counties in Kansas.
Trisha Purdon, director for the office, said the people tapping into the subsidy are mostly teachers and health care workers. But she said it may soon include people in other jobs, like the homebuilders needed in Humboldt.
The state hopes that might keep young people closer to home and draw more people to smaller towns. Purdon said her office also wants to tackle a lack of child care and slow internet speeds in rural areas.
“When 2030 comes around,” Purdon said, “I want to see that some of our rural counties that hadn't seen growth, are seeing growth.”
Politicians have also taken up the issue this year. Republican state Sen. Mike Thompson called for cutting all taxes on retirement income in a bid to keep older Kansans from leaving the state. That plan was not enacted, but it was one of several instances where Republican lawmakers suggested cutting taxes would help decrease migration of the state.
So then with all of these efforts and ideas, why has Kansas still not reached Brownback’s projection? The reality is that it’s a much bigger phenomenon than any one policy can fix.
Between 2010 and 2020, rural America didn’t just grow slower than the rest of the country. For the first time, it actually shrunk.
Johnson said rural areas mostly rely on births, rather than incoming migration, to grow. But they are losing people in their child-bearing years to metro areas. And for all sorts of reasons, like going to college or finding better jobs.
That leaves rural areas with fewer young adults and more elderly people.
“So that combination,” Johnson said, “produces natural decrease especially when the birth rates are low like they are now.”
Like in Kansas. The most significant population loss in the state occurred in rural communities with fewer than 10,000 people in 2010. Additionally, all 14 of the counties along the Oklahoma border saw a decline of population during the last decade. Half of them saw more than a 10% drop.
Xanthippe Wedel, a researcher for a University of Kansas data center, said the decline of rural Kansas began nearly a century ago during the Dust Bowl.
Take Morton County, for example. The southwest Kansas county had its largest population recorded in 1930, right before the Dust Bowl. Between 2010-2020, it suffered the largest rate of loss in the state.
Wedel said Morton County’s migration patterns show more than half of the population who left moved to the Flint Hills, which is home to both Kansas State University and Emporia State University.
“The young people in these areas,” Wedel said, “(are) leaving to seek education and employment elsewhere.”
The trend appears to be continuing. Even though Allen County saw growth, for the last three years, the overall population in Kansas is estimated to have dipped.
So while some hip rural scenes like Humboldt create ways to survive and even thrive, the vast majority of rural Kansas hasn’t yet figured out how to keep pace.
“Historically, many rural counties,” Johnson said, “have experienced protracted population loss.”
Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.
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