TOPEKA — Nearly three-quarters of Kansas' counties lost residents over the past decade, continuing a trend that has left dying towns in rural areas even as other regions see greater suburban sprawl, according to figures released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Declining rural populations have become a compelling issue this year for new Gov. Sam Brownback and legislators. Brownback is pushing a plan to lure people from other states to struggling counties by promising that they won't have to pay individual income taxes for five years.
The census figures showed that 77 of the state's 105 counties had fewer residents in 2010 than in 2000, and 23 of the counties saw their populations drop by more than 10 percent.
Yet Kansas' overall population grew by 6 percent over the decade, allowing the state to avoid losing representation in Congress. The state's population exceeded 2.85 million, up nearly 165,000 from the 2000 figure of 2.69 million.
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In the state's portion of the Kansas City metro area, Johnson County saw its population grow nearly 21 percent and had the Census confirm its status as the state's most populous county. There's also a cluster of growing counties in the Wichita metropolitan area, and the counties around Fort Riley in northeast Kansas also saw significant growth, thanks to an expansion on the Army post.
"It's always good to see growth, but I'd like to see more balanced growth across more of the state," Brownback said in a statement.
The population declines in rural areas of the state didn't surprise demographers and others who've studied census figures. The Docking Institute of Public Policy at Fort Hays State University has concluded that people are migrating from small communities — some to regional trade centers, but more to the Kansas City and Wichita areas.
The institute's leaders acknowledge that some of the migration may be a tendency among young adults to seek out cultural amenities or bigger communities. But Mike Walker, the institute's assistant director, said ultimately the key issue is jobs.
"Kids are just leaving," he said. "Kids might want to stay in an area — many of them don't — but if there aren't jobs for them, they can't."
Brownback's income tax break would go to people who move from another state to a Kansas county that has lost 10 percent or more of its population over the past decade. His proposal also would allow those counties to help repay new residents' college loans, splitting the cost with the state.
His plan is before the Kansas House, and the Senate has passed its own, more generous version. Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said the new census figures confirm the need for action.
"We continually lose people from our rural counties, and we need to be more aggressive on finding ways to reverse that trend," Morris said.
Kiowa County in southwest Kansas saw the biggest population decline of any county. A deadly May 2007 tornado leveled almost all of its seat of Greensburg, and the Census reported that the county's population declined 22 percent over the decade as it lost 725 residents, dropping to 2,553.
All of the counties losing more than 10 percent of their population over the decade already were sparsely populated, with fewer than 8,000 residents each in 2000.