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Fighting population loss in the shrinking rural U.S.


Politicians have long promised one policy or another could help stop the population loss that has affected so many of the country's rural areas. Take Kansas, for example. There are efforts in that state to make farming country a more attractive place for young people. Dylan Lysen of the Kansas News Service reports.

DYLAN LYSEN, BYLINE: In 2014, then-Kansas Governor Sam Brownback made a bold prediction that the state would soon reach a new population milestone.


SAM BROWNBACK: In fact, by the end of this decade, for the first time in our history, Kansas' population will surpass 3 million people.

LYSEN: Kansas didn't quite meet the mark. U.S. Census figures show Kansas had a population of 2.93 million people in 2020, and it still hasn't reached 3 million. There has been growth in the state's big metros, Kansas City and Wichita. But in rural areas, it's a much different story. And like many other farm communities throughout the country, there's been a steep decline. Now, some in Kansas are trying to reverse that trend.

PAUL CLOUTIER: So this is HoneyBee Bruncherie. It's a small rest and lunch place here in Humboldt, Kan.

LYSEN: Paul Cloutier is part of a group that's helped bring a little bit of hip to Humboldt, a town of just under 2,000 people, about 100 miles southwest from Kansas City.

CLOUTIER: It has this vibrant, kind of creative, bright urban energy in a small town that you never really expect to see something like this here.

LYSEN: The restaurant is one of several projects the group helped launch to make Humboldt a more happening place. There's also a new brewery, a new campground and a new coffee shop.

CLOUTIER: There was a sense that let's make the town that we want to live in.

LYSEN: And now after losing more than 6% of its population in the last decade, the census shows there may actually be some growth in the area. But Humboldt may only be able to grow so much. For starters, it's got a housing shortage and not enough demand for new homes. There may be an even bigger problem. Ken Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire, says revamps and renovations to prevent the exodus from small-town America haven't been effective, since young people like to move to larger cities.

KEN JOHNSON: So many rural counties, especially rural farm counties, of which there are a number in Kansas, typically are more likely to lose young adults than anyone else.

LYSEN: They are heading off to college or leaving for better jobs. Rural areas mostly rely on births rather than incoming migration to grow. And with fewer childbearing adults around, communities start to shrivel. So Kansas launched a state agency called the Office of Rural Prosperity to try to make a difference. It's invested hundreds of millions of dollars in housing for rural areas in recent years. It also tries to tempt people to move to smaller towns by paying off student loan debt if they fill specific jobs. Trisha Purdon is the director of the office.

TRISHA PURDON: If we can create a culture where young people feel welcomed, we'll be well on our way to creating communities of the state's future, which will in turn help communities grow.

LYSEN: So with all these efforts, why has Kansas still not reached former Governor Brownback's projection of 3 million residents? Republican state lawmakers contend taxes prompt people to leave. Democratic Governor Laura Kelly says the new laws restricting transgender rights scare away businesses and new residents. It's a never-ending argument about the state's loss of rural population. While some hip, rural enclaves like Humboldt create ways to survive and even thrive, the vast majority of rural Kansas hasn't yet figured out how to keep pace.

For NPR News, I'm Dylan Lysen in Humboldt, Kan.

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Dylan Lysen