Art Hall, executive director of the Center for Applied Economics, discusses his study into the depopulation os Kansas and Great Plains communities.

Study examines depopulation of Kansas, plains communities

A researcher at KU has made a vital study of how U.S. population shifts are shrinking local tax bases and economies in Kansas and across the Great Plains.

Art Hall, executive director of the university’s Center for Applied Economics at the School of Business, said he uncovered key themes to population shifts in the Midwest by looking at annual data collected by the Internal Revenue Service on county-to-county migration.

Hall found that the Great Plains are depopulating in a continuation of a century-long trend, making regions of Kansas vulnerable to a dangerous loss of citizenry.

“Once you fall below a critical mass of people, unless there is a resource like oil or natural gas, it’s hard to sustain crucial businesses,” Hall said. “Agriculture is simply not going to do it any more. It’s a very painful process. Towns are dying.”

Hall cautioned that Kansas would face hurdles in solving the underlying shift in population away from the region.

“The Great Plains is undergoing a transition,” Hall said. “In the Great Plains in general, Denver has been a major spot for migration. In the Kansas case, what you have is essentially people migrating east. Most of the Kansas migration is toward Kansas City or towards northeast Kansas. But for Kansas in general, most counties are seeing net outmigration. It’s all coming east. And the state itself has seen a net outmigration. But it’s very much a revolving door. In any given year, about 33,000 taxpayers are migrating in and a little more than that are migrating out. So it’s an extremely dynamic place.”

Hall’s research showed that St. Louis, Phoenix, Dallas and Los Angeles are the largest sources of new people moving into the state of Kansas. Those same cities, with the exception of Los Angeles, are the cities most likely to be destinations for people who leave Kansas.

Hall said that many Kansas communities face stark policy choices in terms of what kinds of employers they are willing to accommodate. “Every community wants to be a healthy, nice place to live with good jobs. But you can’t overcome the dynamism of places — and policy as a tool can only go so far. Everyone is chasing the same people to move and the same businesses to create jobs. Having a much more balanced approach to defining good government services, to defining reasonable tax rates, to not being biased against the types of business that come to your community, is one of the best perspectives in terms of trying to nurture community growth.”

The KU researcher suggested that consolidation of municipal entities and the services of Kansas’ 105 counties could work to combat consequences stemming from the outflow of people from rural areas.

“There is a perennial discussion about whether Kansas has too many counties and should consolidate them,” said Hall. “It’s kind of a ‘third-rail’ type of issue. But it’s not really an either-or question. Communities need the freedom to partner with other communities. Right now, there is actually a law saying you need permission from Topeka to do this. If folks started thinking about tearing down that structure so that they could create their own innovative solutions to their own local problems, that will take some of the pressure off.”

There are counties and cities in Kansas that defy the statewide trend of population declines. For example, Hall said his research showed that Hays is an exception to the rule of dwindling tax bases.

“In the northwest, Hays is really the only game in town,” said Hall. “People are coming to Hays and creating a critical mass that’s actually supporting that influx. People go to Hays and say ‘well there’s not much there.’ But in reality, Hays is actually growing quite healthily.”

Nationwide, Hall said, 14 percent of U.S. citizens move every year, a number of people equivalent to the population of Florida. The old and young are particularly nomadic, with reasons behind moves ranging from climate to employment to local tax rates.

“Once you get families there’s a lot more stability,” said Hall. “That stability generates a disinclination to move, but they’re willing to commute longer distances. But even then, there’s a lot of dynamism around metro areas even if they’re not moving across the country. In the big picture, it’s the first time in U.S. history that the general migration pattern is eastern rather than westward.”

The full report, “The County-to-County Migration of Taxpayers and their Incomes, 1995-2006” is available in PDF form online.

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