There has long been an east-west tension in Kansas.
It’s not as obvious as the partisan hostility that plagues our politics, but it’s been a factor in Kansas’ government — and has helped define our character — for more than a century.
The split might be more aptly described today as an urban-rural divide, with a splash of geographic animosity tossed in for extra tang.
This kind of demographic division is quite common. The Washington Post has been publishing a series of stories on swing states with similar kinds of splits. A recent one carried the headline "The four political states of Arizona."
What should worry people who value western Kansas and rural communities is that population trends are leaving divisive politics in place while decreasing the clout that rural Kansas has, economically and governmentally.
A clearer picture should emerge when 2020 Census figures for towns, counties, states and the country are released next year. But nothing indicates that the trends of recent decades will be reversed.
What those trends show is that rural Kansas continues to lose population while metropolitan areas grow. Estimates from the U.S. Census for 2019 show that 11 counties around Wichita and Kansas City account for 1.6 million Kansas residents. That’s more than half of the state’s population.
At the same time, almost all western counties are shrinking. Even the regional economic centers in western Kansas — Seward, Finney, Ford and Barton counties — lost population between 2010 and 2019. Ellis County was an exception; it gained 100 people over 10 years, according to the Census estimates.
Amid the pandemic, there have been anecdotes and speculation that these declines are now reversing. Most of us have heard stories of people moving out of cities and into suburban and rural communities.
Hard evidence that this is happening nationally — beyond the wealthy high-tailing it to their second homes — is skimpy. And there’s no evidence that such trends are happening in Kansas.
The state and the nation have failed to continue to invest in rural communities in ways that make them attractive to young families, entrepreneurs and others.
While often willing to hand out tax breaks to businesses and economic development incentives to corporations, Kansas has not made the kind of investments that sustain healthy rural communities over the long haul.
Good infrastructure, including reliable internet service, safe water supplies and maintained roads, are a must.
High quality public schools also are vital. That includes providing students with top-notch science and technology instruction, as well as the means to further their educations and themselves.
Another growing obstacle is health care, which in most of rural Kansas remains more expensive and less accessible than in urban areas.
Kansans who live in suburban and urban Kansas have an interest in rebuilding the quality of life and sustainability of the state’s rural communities.
Even as agriculture requires fewer and fewer people — because of crop advances and automation — it remains a mainstay of the state’s economy, creating jobs and revenue off the farm. And property taxes paid by farmers finance a big chunk of Kansas’ public education.
As lawmakers look out mostly for their own communities and their own political party, it will be tougher to make sure rural Kansas is treated equitably. But ensuring that rural communities get the consideration and benefits they need to thrive will help the entire state prosper.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers across Kansas.