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Mark Peterson: Rural revival takes more than subsidies

  • Published Sunday, April 6, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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Gov. Sam Brownback’s Rural Opportunity Zones provide tax abatements and student-debt repayment for people coming to work in one of 73 rural counties with declining populations. Our very conservative governor also asked for and got a rural-focused, state-guaranteed low-cost mortgage-financing scheme.

During a recent PBS interview, Brownback emphasized the ongoing (now more than three-fourths of a century) decline in rural population, the probability that Kansas is trending toward becoming the 15th least-populous state in the nation, and the likelihood that there is what economists refer to as moral hazard inherent in the ROZ program (i.e., some people will use the program to receive the benefits and leave the communities they’ve moved into as soon as the benefit ceases).

With evidence that 669 applications (19 percent were transplants to Kansas) had been approved since inception early in the Brownback administration (total outlays $880,000), Brownback expressed faith based on hope: “It’s about creating opportunities for people.”

A January 2014 report to the Legislature found those approved included 59 government employees. Education jobs numbered 324, and 268 were health care workers. The idea is to bring people back, as the governor states, to places like Parker and Phillipsburg because of the deep sense of community that already exists there – along with a little cash.

But ROZ is part of a romantic experiment to overcome facts that have been reaffirmed recently by the Census Bureau. Through three-plus years of the Brownback experiment called the “Road Map for Kansas,” the state has only grown because of more births than deaths. The effect of 51,000 more births than deaths was diminished by 10,000 more emigrants from than immigrants to the state.

While those new baby Kansans will gladden grandparents’ hearts, that won’t compensate for the likely decline in the workforce that will take place in the 20 years between now and when these infants become fully educated, mature participants in the workforce.

If government and the private sector don’t begin to work aggressively to improve the state’s physical infrastructure, improve opportunities for high-wage employment, bolster academic performance and the strengths of our higher-education system, and generally demonstrate that Kansas is ready to move progressively forward in the 21st century and not backward to the 19th, it will not be hard to forecast what will become of Kansas’ newest 40,000 citizens. They will be the emigrants of the 2030s seeking something more than small-bore subsidies to remain in an economically and creatively lackluster Kansas that fell for conservative romanticism.

Mark Peterson of Topeka teaches political science.

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