Opinion: How to really help Kansas’ rural minority

Kansas’s rural identity is struggling.

Partly this is because it’s not entirely accurate. The state’s population of 2.9 million is concentrated in the cities and suburbs of the Topeka-Lawrence-Kansas City nexus, with nearly 1.2 million Kansans spread across only five counties. Add to that the city of Wichita’s nearly 400K residents, and you have over half the population of the entire state accounted for. Meanwhile, the 2020 census shows that 80 of Kansas’s 105 countries, nearly all of them rural, are losing population. Despite the images, stories, and songs evoked by our farms, pastures, and rural highways, the great majority of Kansans today are urbanites, and that likely won’t change.

This reality mostly isn’t reflected in our Legislature, of course. Though Kansas’s urban areas have become more Democratic in their voting habits — three Johnson County state house seats held by Republicans flipped last November — the state’s long-standing district-based election patterns have long helped Republicans maintain dominance in most areas lacking in population density or demographic diversity, which describes those dozens of shrinking counties quite well. So even as Kansas’ population moves to the cities–and those city votes definitely add up when counted statewide; remember, Gov. Laura Kelly came out ahead in only eight counties but still won — its representative bodies remain heavily tilted towards mostly rural Republican voices.

One might assume that would mean rural concerns are the Republicans’ major focus. But that’s the other part of the reason: the Kansas GOP’s support for rural interests, despite the huge support they receive from those small and distant communities, is mixed at best.

There is some support there, to be sure. But addressing the problems of long-term population and economic decline are difficult, while following the culture war agenda of the national Republican party and its donors, and filing the bills which their interest groups write, is easy.

Leave aside the benefits Medicaid expansion would bring to rural Kansas; that the Republican leadership refuses to move forward with something supported by 70% of Kansans is by now an old story. Consider instead other issues: a water crisis driving ever more of the already shrinking number of farmers to sell out to bigger corporate actors; a housing crisis making it difficult for those trying to start a business or get by on a fixed income to stay in their hometowns; a lack of broad-band access, child-care resources, or support for school maintenance; and more.

These are complicated problems, requiring patient investment and difficult compromises. The decade-plus of effort the Legislature has put into establishing “local enhanced management areas” in western Kansas, supporting farmers in cutting back on irrigation, is a good example, one that has shown some real success in protecting the High Plains Aquifer. By contrast, there are those who present, say, ideologically charged promises of school choice — which is irrelevant to a farm town just trying to save its high school — or legislation designed to lure financial interests to rural Kansas–which shows more hope in fees from global high-rollers than in the state budget — as their preferred solutions, rather than taking on this complicated, usually unsexy work.

So long as the minority of rural voters in Kansas can dominate the Legislature, they should at least expect their concerns to be addressed seriously. This year, hopefully rural Republicans will see less of their representatives’ time consumed by imagined threats like the occasional transgender athlete or non-existent Marxist schoolbooks, and more by the hard task of helping their patient rural supporters out.

— Russell Arben Fox teaches politics in Wichita.


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