Editorial: State’s slow population growth sparks familiar question of “What’s the matter with Kansas?”

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

In 1896, Emporia Gazette Editor William Allen White famously asked in an editorial “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Surely, one of the answers today is that not enough people want to live here.

Kansas recently received its once-per-decade population figures from the U.S. Census. From 2010 to 2020, Kansas grew by 2.9%, its worst population growth rate since the Great Depression.

The U.S. as a whole also grew more slowly than normal, as the decade featured both the Great Recession and a pandemic. But a slow growth rate for the U.S. amounted to a 7.4% population increase for the decade. Kansas rarely ever grows as quickly as the nation as a whole, but usually we aren’t this much of a laggard. In the preceding decade, the U.S. grew by 9.7%, while Kansas grew by 6.1%. Respectable. This last decade? Concerning.

Kansas doesn’t need more people for the sake of more people. It needs more people because the cost of government gets too expensive if we can’t spread it around, and America’s system of power is partially based on population. Power continues to migrate to the coasts, places with mountains or abundant sunshine. We can lament our lack of such attributes, but nobody will care or hear because we’ll have such a weak voice. We are getting weaker even among central states. In the group of Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Colorado, our population growth rate was the slowest this decade — save for Missouri.

Never has there been a more hollow victory chant than: “At least we’re better than Missouri.”

But enough with the hand-wringing. What can we do? Much, and new ideas for growth deserve much more conversation than they are getting today. But here are three basic ideas:

• Embrace the wind. This should be a no-brainer for the state. We need to go all-in on renewable energy production. The state is windy. The country is highly interested in renewable energy. Royalty payments from wind turbines will be a direct cash infusion into the pocketbooks of rural landowners who live in some of our smallest and most vulnerable communities. We need to get over our silly political divisions on renewable energy. If hot air from politicians could produce energy, Kansas could use that as a resource. But it doesn’t, so get on board with the green energy movement. The energy industry already has decided that’s the future.

• Make government more efficient. Kansas probably ought to have 105 school district superintendents — one for each county — rather than the several hundred it has today. Keep the schools in small communities as long as you can, but narrow down the administrators. There are efficiencies of scale to be found in many aspects of government administration. As this page has noted before, Lawrence and Douglas County have low-hanging fruit when it comes to streamlining back office functions. A low-population, slow-growth state must be efficient to be attractive. We can do more on that front.

• Use the magnet of higher education. People often stay where they go to college. Get more of them to come to school here. Sometimes the simplest strategies are the best. The three communities with research universities — Lawrence, Manhattan, and Wichita — have a big role to play. Local governments in each of those communities should dedicate at least $1 million a year in funding to start-up and venture capital money for businesses that come out of their universities. We create a lot of narratives to tell the value of higher education. It would be easier if we pointed to more signs of more businesses that got their start in a Kansas university community.

Then the state needs to do its part by devoting tens of millions of dollars each year to funding out-of state scholarships. Some Kansas residents will complain that it is their tax dollars, so if anyone should be getting a scholarship, it should be them. Understandable. It will take a talented politician to help the masses understand that spending money on people outside the state is our best strategy to ultimately helping those of us in the state. But it is a case that needs to be made.

We can’t afford to become nativists. If we don’t understand that, then we’ve found the answer to that age-old question of “What’s the matter with Kansas?”


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