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State’s rural counties still losing population

Trend accelerated in the past decade

By | June 08, 2010

The number of people living in rural Kansas continues to shrink.

A recent Kansas Department of Health and Environment compilation of U.S. Census Bureau projections shows that five Kansas counties have lost at least 19 percent of their populations in the last 10 years.

The five counties and their losses:

• Gove County – 19.2 percent, a loss of 588 residents.

• Lane County – 19.2 percent, a loss of 413 residents.

• Jewell County – 19.3 percent, a loss of 732 residents.

• Wallace County – 19.5 percent, a loss of 341 residents.

• Greeley County – 19.6 percent, a loss of 300 residents.

Moving to the cities

“This is all part of a shift – a movement toward the state’s more metropolitan areas and away from the most remote areas. That’s been going on for decades,” said John Leatherman, an agricultural economics professor at Kansas State University who has studied the population trends. “But still, numbers like ‘19 percent in 10 years’ are, in fact, shocking to contemplate."

Kiowa County lost 956 people, or 29.2 percent of its population, since 2000. Most of the loss occurred after a May 4, 2007 tornado destroyed Greensburg, the county seat town, and many moved chose not to rebuild.

The Census projections are based on a formula built on migration data, and birth and death records.

“There’s always the caveat that the projections may not detect every single migration there is to detect but overall they’re a good way to come up with some pretty reliable estimates,” said Greg Crawford, who compiled the report for KDHE.

Since 2000, the state’s overall population has grown by 4.8 percent while 85 of its 105 counties recorded 10-year losses.

The 10 most populous counties – Johnson, Sedgwick, Shawnee, Wyandotte, Douglas, Leavenworth, Riley, Reno, Butler, and Saline – now account for almost 61 percent of the state’s population.

“What’s happening is we raise a bunch of good kids, we send them off to college, they graduate, but they don’t come back,” said Ness County Health Department Administrator Eva Petersen. “There aren’t that many jobs here.”

Ness County’s population has dropped 17.9 percent since 2000.

“It’s pretty simple. We don’t have people moving in and our old people are passing away,” said Arlene Doll, administrator at the Lane County Health Department in Dighton.

Senior care rounds

Between 2000 and 2008, Lane County recorded 163 births; 223 deaths. Almost 81 percent of the deaths involved people over age 65.

Health department operations changed with the population decline, Doll said.

“We make what we call ‘senior care rounds,’ that’s where we go out and do health checks on our seniors,” she said. “Ten years ago, we had three full-time people making rounds. Now, we have one and she has some openings. There just aren’t that many people here anymore.”

In Ness County, Petersen said, the decline means not enough health professionals in the community.

“We still do a lot of immunizations. That’s not changed much in the two years that I’ve been here. We're busy,” she said. “But our problem is we have a real shortage of doctors and dentists. If you need to see a dentist or an OB/GYN, you have to drive an hour to Hays or to Dodge City. So a lot of people end up going out of town and we try not to compete with the doctors who are here.”

Jim Hays, a research specialist at the Kansas Association of School Boards, keeps a close eye on the state’s population numbers.

“What’s fascinating is to compare the percentage changes in the last decade with the percentage changes we saw in the 1990s,” Hays said.

Twenty counties gained population between 2000 and 2009, he said, but none of these gains topped those recorded in the 1990s.

“Look at Johnson County,” Hays said. “We’re nine years into the decade and so far, it’s had a 20.3 percent increase in population. In the 1990s, it grew 27 percent.”

Hispanic immigration sharply down

Nowhere, he said, has the difference between decades been more pronounced than in Southwest Kansas.

“Back when Hispanic immigration was fueling huge percentage growths, Finney County’s population went up 22.5 percent in the 1990s, so far this decade: 3.8 percent.”

Ford and Seward counties, he said, grew by 18.2 percent and 20.1 percent respectively in the 1990s; but between 2000 and 2009, the percentages were 3.8 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively.

The “Hispanic immigration” that buoyed the state’s population throughout the 2000s, he said, is now in decline.

“That’s significant,” Hays said, “because for most of the past decade Hispanic immigration accounted for just a little over half the population growth in the state. There was a time back in 2005 and 2006 when it was over 70 percent.”

Hays said he’s often asked what policymakers can do to reverse the trend.

“It’s pretty hard to come up with something to reverse a trend that’s been in place since the 1890s,” he said. “That’s when all this started, that was our peak.”