Future of Kansas’ rural communities hinges on advancing child care, housing, jobs

Survey of 21-39 age group emphasizes need for ‘open minds’

By: - August 2, 2021 2:05 pm
U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat, said the federal infrastructure law earmarked $58.6 million to plug more than 5,400 abandoned oil and gas wells in Kansas. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat, said the federal infrastructure law earmarked $58.6 million to plug more than 5,400 abandoned oil and gas wells in Kansas. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A statewide survey of ideas for making rural Kansas a more compelling place for young adults to put down roots revealed the need for government investment in expansion of child care options and strengthening of entrepreneurial business pipelines.

The state’s Office of Rural Prosperity worked with the Kansas Sampler Foundation to examine what Kansans aged 21 to 39 thought about recruiting and retaining them in small towns and remote counties suffering depopulation. The foundation drew upon 460 survey responses from all 105 counties and 175 follow-up interviews to identify why people chose to live in rural areas and why it might have been difficult to make that choice.

The report acknowledged significant lack of affordable housing and access to broadband as determinants of the future in rural regions of Kansas. The document recommended local government leaders accept the necessity of forming a “culture of open minds and positivity.” That includes valuing diversity of culture, age, gender and thought, the report said.

In addition, the state ought to craft a program reaching students in K-12 classes that speaks to the idea of harnessing skills, interests and passions of young rural Kansans useful in building sustainable rural communities. The objective is to convince the youngest Kansans they have a bright future no matter the size of their city or town.

“This report will help us address young Kansans’ needs to prevent outmigration and strengthen our growing economy,” said Gov. Laura Kelly. “My administration will continue prioritizing the key issues identified — such as childcare, broadband expansion and affordable housing — along with keeping our state welcoming and inclusive for all to support our rural and young Kansans.”

Authors of the report emphasized not one action, business startup or government policy would bring about real change, because Kansans participating in the survey pointed to the need for a culture or ecosystem capable of supporting and building the capacity of rural communities.

“It was exhilarating to hear the thoughts, dreams and hopes of young rural Kansans and to compile them in this report, but the test will be what we do with the information,” said Inman resident Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sample Foundation. “The enthusiasm for living rural with all of its warts and opportunities was evident in these 175 interviews. Young people can see a path forward so the question is whether we can open our minds to take meaningful steps forward as whole communities. The work isn’t for a few of us, but every citizen.”

She said change had to go beyond high-speed internet, housing and child care to include a new philosophy of examining challenges.

“Does your town like itself? Does it welcome people to town? Are there ways for anybody to get involved? Are new ideas considered?” Penner said. “I believe that true transformation of our communities will begin when we start listening to and believing in our young people. When the listening becomes balanced, we’re well on our way to moving forward.”

In terms of child care, the foundation’s report for the rural prosperity division of the Kansas Department of Commerce concluded the insufficient supply of help for working adults kept rural Kansans from having children. That reality essentially pushes people away from rural areas of the state, the report said.

“This is not just an  issue for parents, but for an entire community,” the report said. “It undermines economic development efforts that focus on job growth and when combined with housing shortages, it compromises the viability and appeal of rural life.”

The report recommended Kansas improve coordination of state programs, regulations, advocacy efforts and providers to close gaps in service. Financial and technical assistance may be required to build a reservoir of child care options in the state’s smaller communities, the report said.

The survey of Kansans affirmed the notion that small businesses were the engine that propelled rural towns and counties. Creating new businesses operated by young entrepreneurs is “critical to keeping the community thriving,” the report said.

Rural towns and counties were urged to redirect tax dollars from larger established businesses to support youthful entrepreneurs in addition to tax incentives and capital investment in new businesses. Local communities might establish local revolving loan funds, professional consulting services and help with accessing state, regional and federal funding, the report said.

A point of emphasis was development of one-stop shops within state agencies to help business owners deal with stumbling blocks, the report said.

“Be good to employees,” the report said. “Consider unique rural opportunities for work-life balance. Build on our agricultural heritage and economic base. Promote the idea that one can live rural and change the world from here.”

The assessment initiated in 2020 and concluded in 2021 indicated grassroots organizations worked diligently with few resources and could benefit from monetary reinforcement by the Kansas Legislature. State lawmakers could create a clearinghouse of information on constructive ideas, local success stories and training or funding to overcome child care, food access and other rural community needs of concern to young families.

“Respondents overwhelmingly identified that, while rural needs may be specifically local, the issues are systemic across the state,” said David Toland, the state’s lieutenant governor and commerce secretary. “By focusing on the recurring challenges, like broadband and housing, we can see where our state needs to emphasize funding and additional resources for everyone.”

The report indicated the state could help by providing grant-writing services to communities, broaden flexibility of state funding for local projects and collaborate with Lead for America, a nonprofit that brings people together to work on a community’s toughest challenges.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.