There were no surprises in the recently released 2020 census numbers that will be used to draw new lines for congressional and state senate and house districts. Kansas grew, but at a rate slower than the nation overall. Rural areas largely saw their populations dwindle while metros swelled, an ongoing trend since the industrial revolution.
Overall, rural parts of the country lost 226,000 people in the past decade to urban and suburban places, which grew by more than 20 million. As a state, we’re slightly older and more diverse, overall. Beyond the obvious demographic shifts, the census numbers mean political power is shifting, too.
This is worrisome not because the issues facing cities and towns are all that different from the challenges across the countryside. It’s because far too often a policy or program that works in one area is a total bust when expanded to another.
Many of the challenges we face across the state are the same, from housing and childcare to taxes and labor shortages. The solutions to these are nearly as varied as the more than 2.9 million people who call Kansas home.
But with fewer folks walking in the statehouse or the halls of Congress with rural backgrounds means there’s less understanding of the challenges and opportunities that exist in communities where the nearest neighbor might be a quarter-mile or more away. The rules and regulations that make sense in cities where people interact with one another more frequently are often ineffective or even counterproductive in less populated areas.
While the proportional political power flowing to cities carries real risks for those of us who enjoy rural lifestyles, we still have a lot of capacity to shape the outcomes of laws.
I don’t expect our big city citizens to wield their growing power over their country cousins with malice. But there’s only so many issues we have the time to fully grasp. Self-interest being what it is, we usually don’t stray too far outside our immediate neighborhood when trying to solve a problem.
That’s why it’s so important to tell the story of farming and ranching, the benefits of rural living and, most importantly, why people who do none of those should listen. They’re not going to agree with you on everything, but through conversations with friends, family and business partners, greater understanding of rural issues and their solutions is possible.
It’s also a good opportunity to talk about the quality of life available in the country and small towns. Most aren’t looking to give up their lives in the city, but in a world where it’s increasingly common to work anywhere, the choice of where workers live is everywhere. That means one of the primary drivers of urbanization is perhaps at its weakest point since the steam engine was invented.
Technology alone won’t undo centuries of change quickly, but it’s certainly a welcome tool in reviving rural living. Not only does this mean access to jobs that allow people to stay in rural areas, but benefits like clean air and water, less stress and traffic and more privacy are certainly going to be enticing to some city folks as well. By the time the next census comes around, there’s a real chance the story will be about the dawning of the next rural migration.