Opinion: Journalists identify rural areas’ problems

In this holiday season, gifts take center stage for better or worse. We often give and receive gifts that are curious, strange or useless, as well as those we genuinely desire. Sometimes, however, we get a gift that we never anticipated, one that we appreciate in part because it’s a surprise.

This fall, the Kansas News Service, a consortium of public radio stations, gave Kansans such a gift — a podcast series that addressed the decline of rural Kansas. Hosted by veteran journalist Jim McLean, “My Fellow Kansans” explores the centurylong trend of shrinking rural populations. In seven clear-headed episodes, he explores the context of this decline and the implications for 900,000 Kansans who remain in (mostly) shrinking towns and rural areas.

The series begins with an interview with Los Angeles reporter Corie Brown, a Kansas native who returned to the state to explore firsthand the intricacies and implications of rural decline. Despite rediscovering the beauty of western Kansas, Brown eventually wrote a downbeat story titled “Rural Kansas is dying. I drove 1,800 miles to discover why.”

This line of analysis buttresses, to an extent, the early 1990s analyses of academics Frank and Deborah Popper, who wrote of a future, virtually unpopulated “Buffalo Commons” that included most of western Kansas.

Conversely, as McLean notes, almost all recent governors, including Laura Kelly, have promoted plans for revitalizing rural communities, fueled by free land, subsidized high-speed internet and various incentives to assist small towns across the state.

What makes this series so valuable is its willingness to essentially accept the broad, statistically unassailable narrative of rural decline while addressing how some communities have found ways to slow and manage that trend.

The catchphrase, coined by Iowa sociologists, is “shrinking smart.” That is, recognizing the overall decline but finding ways to produce healthy, vibrant communities that will survive, and even thrive, in years to come.

“My Fellow Kansans” addresses several familiar issues and policies. These include the availability of health care and how small communities can downsize from a standard hospital while still retaining adequate levels of care; the conundrum of growing farms and shrinking numbers of farmers, which contributes mightily toward the emptying out of the plains, well-told in an interview with farmer and state legislator Don Hineman; and most importantly, perhaps, how some communities manage to remain vital even as they lose population, while others simply wither on the vine.

Although there is no magic formula, the centerpiece of “shrinking smart” is an involved population, incorporating both formal and informal leaders, as McLean found in Phillipsburg and Beloit, two strong small towns. Hineman, a longtime student of rural affairs, told my legislative interns at the University of Kansas last year that it was the power of people that separated successful communities from others in decline. McLean’s reporting makes this clear, but with no sugar-coating. Rural population loss is a complex problem, which his work more than confirms.

Still, the first step in effectively addressing these problems is to identify them clearly and then seek some tentative answers. “My Fellow Kansans” has done that, and the Kansas News Service has thus offered all Kansans a valuable, welcome gift of clarity, realism and more than a bit of optimism. For that we should all be grateful.

• Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

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