Mark Peterson: Kansas becoming land time forgot

03/02/2014 12:00 AM

02/28/2014 6:34 PM

Our state’s politicians praise unrestricted free enterprise. They promise better schools, highways, economic boosterism and support for children. What they have delivered is a severe reduction in tax revenue partially offset with heavy borrowing through the state transportation department to help pay state government’s general expenses. And they engage in antics that waste time, money and the state’s reputation in every quarter of the land.

What indeed is the matter with Kansas?

One answer is that Kansas is becoming the land that time forgot. Since the 1940s, Kansas’ population has grown 0.8 percent per year while the nation as a whole has grown at 1.9 percent per year. If we had matched the national average, Kansas would have a current population of 4.3 million – and six seats in the U.S. House. Instead, we are 2.9 million in number and are much less diverse than the rest of the country.

Since the 1980s our population growth has only slightly exceeded the natural increase arising from the difference of births over deaths. This is pretty clear circumstantial evidence that people are migrating to Kansas in numbers insufficient to change our colors, faiths or attitudes.

Among our youngest citizens, the number of children enrolled in public K-12 grew from 467,000 in the 2006-07 school year to 485,000 in 2012-13. That’s 3.9 percent or 18,000 students in seven years. While enrollment of Kansas students in all types of higher education has grown from 157,000 to 167,000 between academic years 2007-08 and 2012-13, the number of those students enrolled in the state’s public universities has actually fallen by more than 2,100.

On that subject, we keep pumping out about 40,000 degree or certificate awardees annually but our labor force declined by 1.1 percent from the peak in 2009 to 2013. The decline in our unemployment rate, much ballyhooed by conservatives, occurred not because of a measly 10,000 new jobs since the recessionary low of 2010 but because our workforce has contracted.

Social Security retirees have grown just as demographics predict, but those retiring from the workforce with disabilities have jumped nearly 30 percent from a bit fewer than 58,000 in 2007 to nearly 75,000 in 2012. Our best and brightest head for more favorable territories, while the less adventurous and more decrepit stay behind.

Those Kansans who are inward-looking, resistant to the trends of the ever-changing national culture, and convinced that hellfire and judgment are not far off are the most motivated public citizens in the state’s polity. Those Kansans with a more outward-looking and future-oriented view have been largely passive or ineffectual.

It’s not original to state that the rewards of politics go to the active and involved. For now the winners are on the angry right. But public opinion seems to crave a centrist, progressive vision. Can the energy be found to make it happen?

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