Chase M. Billingham: Migration trends cause for concern, not alarm

04/01/2014 12:00 AM

03/31/2014 5:25 PM

The U.S. Census Bureau released its annual population estimates last week, and local media reports highlighted the seemingly alarming trend of net domestic out-migration from the Wichita area (March 28 Eagle). Indeed, the number of people moving out of Sedgwick County to somewhere else in the U.S. was higher than the number moving in. Even so, the total local population actually rose between 2010 and 2013, as the population increase due to births exceeded the decrease due to out-migration.

Losing working-age adults to out-migration is not an ideal situation. Still, worries over the rate of out-migration may be overblown.

It is true that the Wichita region lost a modest number of people to other regions in the country. So did more than half of the metropolitan areas in the U.S., including New York, Chicago and Kansas City. More than anything else, the domestic migration data indicate a continuation of the decades-long population shift away from the Northeast and Midwest and toward the South and Southwest.

It is worth repeating that the population of the Wichita metropolitan area has actually grown, slowly but steadily, in recent years. The Census Bureau estimates that between 2010 and 2013, the total population of the Wichita region expanded by nearly 6,500 people, mostly because the number of births significantly exceeded the number of deaths. In fact, taking into account all components of population change, the Wichita region is in the top half of U.S metropolitan areas in terms of population growth since 2010.

Still, high rates of domestic out-migration are a cause for concern. To the extent that migration trends are influenced by economic opportunities, the Wichita area may struggle to persuade people to move in as long as the local economy falters, and especially as the aircraft industry continues to shed jobs. Stronger local economic growth will, of course, be necessary for generating robust population growth. But economic growth, in and of itself, is not sufficient.

If Kansas wants to grow, it must become a more inviting place for Americans to relocate, and that means being a more welcoming state.

As a relative newcomer to Wichita, I have been impressed by the warm reception and friendship I have received from co-workers, acquaintances and strangers. Yet Kansas’ image across the nation suffers from high-profile cases of intolerance and closed-mindedness.

Legislative efforts to legitimate discrimination against lesbian and gay couples, to limit the voting power of racial and ethnic minorities, and to resist the full and equitable funding of the state’s public school districts send a message to Americans that Kansas is not a desirable destination. This public perception is likely to manifest itself in persistently depressed net domestic migration numbers for years to come.

The Census Bureau’s migration statistics should not cause panic among Wichita’s leaders, but neither should they be ignored. The region’s population is growing as Wichitans expand their families by having more children. The trick will be to keep those kids in Wichita when they grow up.

Achieving this goal will require a diverse economy with abundant job opportunities. It will also require efforts to make the city and state more inviting to newcomers, and improvements to the quality of life for Wichitans of all backgrounds – better schools, more reliable and accessible mass transit, and a more vibrant downtown, to name just a few.

These types of initiatives will make this a more appealing and welcoming city for the next generation.

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