New census estimates show modest-to-robust population gains for the Wichita area and many cities and towns in northeast Kansas. But for much of Kansas, including most of the western half of the state, the population has been stagnant or decreasing.
How to reverse that trend in rural Kansas is an important issue in this year’s congressional races — though there are no easy solutions.
Statewide, Kansas had an estimated 2.82 million residents as of July 1, 2009, up 4.6 percent from 2000. But that increase was driven by larger cities and suburbs. For example, Wichita’s population increased 8.1 percent to 372,186, and Goddard’s population doubled to 4,048.
Most of the rest of the state saw declines, sometimes by double-digit rates. For example, only two of the 20 cities in northwest Kansas with at least 1,000 residents had population increases since 2000, the Hays Daily News reported. Ellis added 48 people, and Hays increased by 284. Meanwhile, the collective loss of population by the other 18 cities was 5,729.
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And it isn’t only northwest Kansas that is struggling. Hutchinson gained only eight people since 2000, while Reno County lost 1,433 residents, or 2 percent of its population.
In meetings with The Eagle's editorial board, candidates for the 1st Congressional District and the U.S. Senate suggested ways to add jobs and people to the state. Not surprisingly, the GOP candidates called for reducing taxes and regulations — the Republican solution to nearly every problem.
Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Goddard, a U.S. Senate candidate, wants to eliminate estate taxes. Most GOP candidates cited the need to rein in Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
Nearly all the candidates — with the notable exception of Tiahrt — support easing trade restrictions with Cuba to expand markets for Kansas grain.
Congressional candidate Tracey Mann acknowledged that the number of people needed to operate farms is shrinking and likely will continue to do so. To help replace those jobs, he wants to help recruit companies to Kansas — including by making cold calls to CEOs.
Mann and GOP rival Sue Boldra also want to better educate young people about how they don’t have to move away to find opportunities, particularly with the expansion of broadband Internet coverage.
Fellow GOP candidate Rob Wasinger supports one of the more aggressive and comprehensive ideas. He wants to pass a new federal homestead act that would provide business-tax credits, home-purchase credits and forgivable college loans in counties that are losing population.
The most out-of-the-box suggestion was by Charles Schollenberger, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. He called for the creation of a national park in Wallace and Greeley counties in western Kansas — an idea promoted by the Kansas City Star editorial board that hasn’t been well-received in the affected counties.
A number of these ideas are worthy, though reversing population trends will be difficult, particularly when there are economic forces working against them. But our members of Congress can’t sit idle while rural Kansas empties out.
— For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee