It doesn’t pay to be small in Kansas; new numbers show economic downturn for many counties

photo by: Associated Press

In this June 15, 2018, photo, winter wheat is harvested in a field farmed by Dalton and Carson North near McCracken, Kan.

In national politics there is lots of talk about red America and blue America, but perhaps the more important split is big America and small America. New federal figures show just how much the economies of small-town America are getting hammered, and Kansas got hit harder than most, according to one measurement in the new data.

For the first time ever, the federal government has produced data showing the gross domestic product for every county in the country. The GDP is basically a measurement of the size of the economy of a county. It counts all the wages individuals receive, all the profits businesses and farmers make, all the government checks organizations garner and much more.

The new data produced by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis is for 2012 to 2015, which you may remember partially coincides with the time that Gov. Sam Brownback promised his tax cut plan would deliver a jolt of adrenaline to the Kansas economy. Voters since have hypothesized that when Brownback talked about adrenaline he actually meant he was just going to buy a larger than normal amount of Mountain Dew for the governor’s mansion because plenty of statistics have shown the growth of the Kansas economy did not keep up with the growth of many other states during the time period.

But the county-by-county breakdown provides a more detailed look. From 2012 to 2015, 49 of the state’s 105 counties actually saw their economies decline, when adjusted for inflation. In other words, when you look at how much money was coming into a county’s economy in 2012 and then figured out how much that dollar value would be if it grew simply by a rate equal to inflation, 49 counties by 2015 saw the dollar value of their economies shrink.

If you look just at 2015, which is the most recent data available, Kansas performed particularly poorly. The BEA found that the average growth rate of county economies from 2014 to 2015 was 2.8 percent. But in Kansas, only 19 out of the 105 counties posted an economic growth rate of 2.8 percent or better.

Perhaps the most significant finding, though, is how counties performed by size. Nationally, the BEA found that large counties — those with populations of more than 500,000 —  almost universally saw their economies grow in 2015. About 91 percent of the large counties in America grew in 2015, while about 9 percent saw their economies shrink.

Midsized economies, which include Douglas County and others that are between 100,000 and 500,000 people, were very solid bets to have growing economies. About 73 percent of them, including Douglas County, grew.

Small counties — those under 100,000 people — were a dicier proposition. The numbers show about 59 percent saw their economies increase while about 41 percent saw their economies shrinking from 2014 to 2015.

The picture, though, looked much different for small counties in Kansas. In 2015, 64 of Kansas’ 100 small counties saw their economies shrink. That is 64 percent compared with the national average of 41 percent. That is a serious shortage of Mountain Dew.

As with any set of statistics there are some caveats. If agriculture was doing better in 2015, Kansas’ numbers would undoubtedly look better. But, of course, that just highlights one of the big questions facing the state: How does Kansas diversify its economy — especially small-town economies — beyond agriculture? And, yes, the data is almost three years old now. But I’m betting many of the issues that produced the 2015 results are problems still worth pondering by today’s leaders.

For those of you who like numbers, buckle up. Let’s take a look at several other numbers from the new report.

Here’s a look at how Douglas County and its neighbors did. I haven’t mentioned Douglas County’s numbers much, yet, because they aren’t entirely new. We have reported on Douglas County’s GDP before. That’s because the BEA has long produced GDP estimates for every metro area in the country. Lawrence’s metro area happens to include only Douglas County. But the numbers for these other counties are new. These numbers show the total size of the economy and its growth rate — adjusted for inflation in 2012 dollars — from 2012 to 2015.

• Douglas County: $4.1 billion, up 5.7 percent

• Franklin County: $803 million, down 0.2 percent

• Jefferson County: $298 million, up 10.5 percent

• Johnson County: $42 billion, up 6.5 percent

• Leavenworth County: $2.6 billion, up 3.8 percent

• Osage County: $206 million, down 3.1 percent

• Shawnee County: $8.3 billion, down 6 percent

The new set of numbers really were bad for Shawnee County. It was the only midsize or large county in the state that saw its economy shrink from 2012 to 2015, once adjusted for inflation. In other words, all the other counties that saw their economies shrink during the time period had fewer than 100,000 people.

Here is a look at what I’ll call the Billion Dollar Club. These are the 23 counties that had economies of $1 billion or greater. Again, this is based on 2012, inflation-adjusted dollars. These numbers show the total size of the economy and its inflation-adjusted growth rate from 2012 to 2015

1. Johnson County: $42.09 billion, up 6.5 percent

2. Sedgwick County: $26.02 billion, up 2 percent

3. Wyandotte County: $13.36 billion, up 14.1 percent

4. Shawnee County: $8.34 billion, down 6 percent

5. Douglas County: $4.19 billion, up 5.7 percent

6. Geary County: $2.96 billion, down 3.7 percent

7. Leavenworth County: $2.66 billion, up 3.8 percent

8. Saline County: $2.46 billion, up 5.3 percent

9. Riley County: $2.40 billion, up 1.7 percent

10. Reno County: $2.08 billion, up 5.5 percent

11. Finney County: $1.76 billion, up 0.4 percent

12. Bulter County: $1.57 billion, up 2.7 percent

13. Ellis County: $1.56 billion, up 19.9 percent

14. Ford County: $1.47 billion, down 6.7 percent

15. McPherson County: $1.34 billion, down 4.3 percent

16. Pottawatomie County: $1.23 billion, down 0.3 percent

17. Crawford County: $1.22 billion, down 3.7 percent

18. Seward County: $1.22 billion, up 10.3 percent

19. Barton County: $1.20 billion, down 0.5 percent

20. Montgomery County: $1.16 billion, down 10.9 percent

21. Lyon County: $1.15 billion; down 3.5 percent

22. Harvey County: $1.08 billion, up 6.6 percent

23. Cowley County: 1.00 billion, down 6.8 percent


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