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New Census Numbers Should Concern Kansans

An old fashioned windmill, near Claflin, Kansas. (Photo by J. Schafer)
An old fashioned windmill, near Claflin, Kansas. (Photo by J. Schafer)

New Census numbers have been released and reveal some troubling news for Kansas. Commentator Rex Buchanan says the population trends should prompt a discussion about the future of the state.

Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, author and director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey. He lives in Lawrence.  

Rex Buchanan's latest book, published by University Press of Kansas, is titled Petroglyphs of the Smoky Hills, which he co-authored.



A few months ago, the government announced results from the 2020 census. Much of the news coverage around census focused on politics and redistricting—which Congressional districts would get bigger, which would shrink, how they might be configured.

But beyond politics, the data documented other trends, some troubling, that have characterized Kansas for decades.

For starters, 80 Kansas counties lost population. Many of the counties and towns that grew significantly, like Johnson and Sedgwick counties, were a case of the big getting bigger. And many of those counties that gained population were urban. I’ve said this before, but Kansans often picture themselves as a rural people. In reality, we’re increasingly an urban people.

Some counties, like Stanton, out in far southwestern-most Kansas, lost significant population, even though they weren’t that big to begin with. Some of that population loss may be connected to the downturn in natural resource industries, like the oil and gas business, an example of the connection between demographics and natural resource depletion.

Two other big take-aways from the census data. First, the Kansas population is getting older. Second, the population is growing more diverse. The minority population increased in virtually every county in the state, even those that lost population. In southwestern Kansas, the minority population is closing in on 50%.

About the same time the new census data dropped, the state’s office of rural prosperity and the Kansas Sampler Foundation, a private organization in central Kansas, released a report that got less attention than the census data. Based on hundreds of interviews, this report focused on rural Kansas, especially its younger people, and the challenges they face. For decades, young people have moved out of rural areas, an exodus reflected in that census data.

This new report stressed that childcare and broadband access were critical to young people in rural areas. And that they value diversity of all sorts, not only racial diversity.

All of which should provoke a conversation about the future of this state. These demographic changes, especially a shrinking, aging rural population, may be inevitable. But it’s hard to imagine that we can continue business-as-usual in places where the population density is less than two people per square mile, and dropping, the way it is in some counties out west.

We probably all know younger people from little towns who left Kansas for better opportunities or more welcoming communities. The first step is solving a problem is admitting and analyzing it. That may be why the report form the Sampler Foundation and the state, by identifying hurdles that drive young people away, is so important.

Some of these ideas--like access to childcare, healthcare, housing, broadband--are expensive and will take time. Others, like making communities more welcoming, ought to be easier and quicker, though the struggle to get folks vaccinated for covid may show that the actions that should be the easiest are sometimes the hardest.

But if we’re going to keep young people in Kansas, we better get busy. Either that, or the next census is just gonna be more of the same.