The Story of Kansas

December 7, 2011

Will Kansas be an oasis – or stagnate?

The American Dream is still more affordable in Kansas than in other states, but the state faces a number of challenges, a national researcher said Tuesday in Wichita.

The American Dream is still more affordable in Kansas than in other states, but the state faces a number of challenges, a national researcher said Tuesday in Wichita.

"It’s almost as if Kansas is a little bit of an oasis," James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, a strategy and research firm in New York, told about 300 people at the Kansas In Question Beyond 150 symposium at the Hyatt Regency hotel.

The statewide symposium was held for participants to consider the future of Kansas as it celebrates its first 150 years. After Chung’s presentation, attendees broke into round-table discussions about the future of health, employment, education, the environment, and rural and urban life in the state.

Gov. Sam Brownback also spoke at the event, which was sponsored by Wichita State University, the Kansas Health Foundation, the Kansas Leadership Center, and the Wichita Eagle.

Chung, a Wichita native, said the median family income in Kansas is about $1,000 higher than in the rest of the U.S. and homes are more affordable. The question, he said, is what kind of oasis is Kansas?

"Are we an oasis of stability, or are we looking at significant stagnation?" Chung said.

The state, he said, faces declines in population and job growth. The state’s gross domestic product was highest among other Plains states 10 years ago, but it grew at a slower rate over the last decade. Kansas also has one of the highest unemployment rates and one of the highest decreases in the rate of adults obtaining college degrees among Plains states, he said.

Kansas ranks No. 2 behind Massachusetts in science and engineering graduate students as a percentage of the work force, Chung said. It ranks 30 percent higher than the next state, and twice as high as Oklahoma, he said. However, those people aren’t staying in Kansas.

Global trends, which can affect Kansas, are undergoing a huge shift. Industrialized nations, with the exception of the United States, have stopped growing and the GDP of developing nations is catching up to the industrialized world. America, Chung said, may not have the world’s largest economy in 10 years.

Kansas is in position to benefit from growing agricultural demands in developing countries, he said.

Kansas and Wichita can learn lessons from cities like Des Moines and Omaha and states like North Dakota, which have higher percentages of professional jobs and incomes. North Dakota, like Kansas, saw that it was losing population, but decided to re-invest in higher education anyway, he said. The result is that North Dakota has the third-highest rate of young adults who have bachelor’s degrees in the country, and the state saw a 20 percent increase in professional jobs in technical, science and health fields, Chung said.

Chung also pointed out demographic shifts within the United States.

A gender gap is growing as young women get more college degrees and earn more money than young men. “We’re seeing it having a dramatic impact in re-shaping the landscape,” he said.

Minority populations also are growing significantly. Nationally, non-Hispanic whites will generate $257 billion less to the economy in the next 10 years, but that amount will be more than made up by Hispanics, blacks and Asians, he said. In Kansas, Hispanics will generate more than $1 billion for the state’s economy in the next 15 years, Chung said.

He challenged participants at the symposium to figure out how Kansas can take advantage of the demographic trends and to try to answer the question, “What will Kansas be known for in 10 years?”

Brownback, asked during a question-and-answer session what he’d like his legacy to be 10 years from now, said he hoped it would be the reconciliation of people who have different political views. Personal relationships transcend politics, he said.

As a senator, Brownback said, he knew liberal stalwart Ted Kennedy, and enjoyed him as a person even though he disagreed with him politically.

The first time he saw Kennedy enter the Senate floor, he immediately judged him as someone he couldn’t relate with, but later repented for it, Brownback said.

“Once I could get past my own judgmentalism, after that it made it just so much more fun and interesting,” Brownback said.

He ended up working with Kennedy on legislation, he said.

“Before you catch others being judgmental, catch yourself first and repent, then go to that person and find things to work together on,” Brownback said.

Brownback also predicted that political leaders in the future will model their style on Dwight Eisenhower, who has become ranked among the top U.S. presidents in history for achieving important results with a calm, all-inclusive Midwestern style.

Eisenhower, from Abilene, used that style to create the interstate highway system and keep America at peace during his presidency in the 1950s, Brownback said.

"He’s a duck paddling wildly, but he looks like he’s just out for golf every day," Brownback said.

Asked whether there were similarities between the leadership models of Eisenhower and President Barack Obama, Brownback said Eisenhower saw things he knew he couldn’t achieve and, rather than pick fights, moved forward with those he could.

“I don’t think the president has done a good job of that piece of it,” Brownback said.

“I personally like the president. I’ve worked with him,” Brownback said. “I don’t agree with the picking of the topics, because that hasn’t produced the results we need."

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