Kansas’ population will increase in the next 50 years, but the growth will mostly come from older people who live in cities, according to projections released Wednesday by Wichita State University.
If the projections hold true – a big if, given the 50-year-horizon – policymakers and local leaders will have to figure out how to pay for a retirement-age population that will double in size. There will be almost no increase in the working age population. And local and state politicians will be forced to make tough choices about what rural infrastructure, such as roads and hospitals, to continue funding.
The projections, released by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research, are largely based on just a couple of variables: how many people are moving in and out of each county right now, and how many babies are born compared with how many people pass away.
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Kansas’ population is projected to increase by more than 600,000 people, to 3.5 million. This is slower growth than the country as a whole, according to Jeremy Hill, the director of the center that released the report. This isn’t because tons of people are fleeing Kansas or most counties, he said, but just that, over time, a small number of young people leaving every year means fewer young people who are having kids and building families here. And over 50 years those small migration numbers really add up.
A SLOW LEAK
More than 80 percent of Kansas counties, most of them rural, will see their populations decline over the next 50 years, according to the study. The total rural population will decrease from about a third to a fifth of the state total.
Rural towns will have to figure out how to downsize over the next 50 years, Hill said. Local and state politicians will have to decide what infrastructure they can pay for with decreasing tax revenue. A recent national study estimated that nearly a third of Kansas’ rural hospitals are in danger of closing already.
“In the context of rural Kansas, this is nothing new,” Hill said. “Because of declining population base, some of those core services are disappearing.”
Smaller cities such as Dodge City and Pittsburg remain more viable, according to Hill, because, in addition to their own industry, they draw in surrounding rural residents who want to go shopping or receive specialized medical treatment.
The areas surrounding Kansas City and Manhattan will see the largest population growth, as young people continue to move into those areas. Right now those areas account for 44 percent of the state’s population, but that will increase to about 64 percent in 2064.
Other Kansas counties that are anchored by cities, such as Sedgwick, will maintain their populations and may even grow a small amount. Sedgwick County is expected to grow by a little under 25 percent, to about 630,000 – about the same rate as the state as a whole but about half the growth it saw in the past 50 years.
The relatively slow growth in Sedgwick County is due to the Catch-22 of not having enough jobs to draw young people to move here, as well as not having enough skilled labor to make companies want to move here. Without enough skilled labor, companies have not expanded their local production as much as they might have, according to Hill. But without more jobs and higher wages, it’s hard to persuade people to move here.
It’s also due to an image problem, according to Jeff Turner, a former CEO of Spirit AeroSystems who has become active in local economic development. While Wichita continues to attract young people from rural Kansas, it loses more than it attracts. He pointed to the progress in downtown Wichita during the past 10 years as an example of how, with a little support from a broad range of constituents, including government, Wichita could attract more young people.
Some of Gov. Sam Brownback’s policies have tried to promote small businesses in Kansas, which could bring jobs and young people to fill them. But so far these policies have not been the job creators promised, according to Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.
Although Loomis was reluctant to predict how Brownback’s policies might play out in the longer term, he did say that conservative policies make the state less attractive to young college graduates who tend to be more liberal on social issues.
But there will be no shortage of older residents in the state. The study predicts the number of people 65 and older will more than double to 850,000, outnumbering children for the first time in state history.
The study predicts the number of people 65 and older will more than double to 850,000, outnumbering children for the first time in state history.
That means there will be more health care jobs and politicians catering to the needs of an older population, Loomis said.
Older residents may gain some of the biggest political influence, because they tend to vote for their own interests, whereas the shift to urban centers may be offset by infighting. Sedgwick and Johnson counties have not traditionally worked that well together to promote an urban agenda, according to Loomis.
So even if there are substantially more urban politicians in the future, they may continue to undermine each other. In 1966, exactly 50 years ago, Kansas changed its election laws to favor urban and suburban areas, but rural areas have continued to receive political support from politicians who grew up on farms, Loomis said.
“I think ideology is far more important than geography,” Loomis said.
50 YEARS IS A LONG TIME
Many factors were purposefully left out of the projections. For instance, the study assumes that life expectancy will not change from what it is today, even though it has grown in the past 50 years from about 70 to 80 years. If life expectancy continues to increase, the population in 2064 would be even older than is already predicted.
The study also leaves out race and ethnicity. Few people would have predicted the influx of Hispanic migration to Kansas over the past 50 years, according to Hill. If the next president restricts immigration, as some candidates have proposed, he said, the population of some counties in western Kansas would shrink even more than is projected.
The study also doesn’t incorporate economic or technological changes. Compared with places like North Dakota or Silicon Valley, the economy of Kansas has been pretty steady, according to Loomis.
But when Wichita State released these same population projections in 2012, it slightly over-predicted the number of Kansas residents today. And it predicted that there would be twice as much growth in Sedgwick County as there turned out to be. This is in part because Wichita lost aerospace jobs to Oklahoma, according to Hill.
That was only a four-year period. Over 50 years there will be many more unexpected events, some potentially good, some not.
“Think of the size of Austin, Texas, versus Wichita in 1966 compared to today,” Hill said. “No one would’ve predicted that.”