Kansas is going nowhere

Mark Peterson

By A Contributor

What accounts for the enthusiasm our political leaders have for being moral busybodies, anti-government enthusiasts and fiscal fantasists?

They have the support of an energetic minority of conser-vative middle- and lower-middle class, mostly male, mostly em-ployed adult Kansans who vote for the dream of improving eco-nomic opportunity, good schools, minimal lifestyle interference, fewer minorities (or “ille-gals”) and low taxes.  These voters’ consistently per-verse reward is government that provides minimalist services, lots of behavior regulation and a tax system that burdens the middle and bottom of the socio-econo-mic heap more than the top. 

Our politicians praise un-restricted free enterprise. They promise better schools, high-ways, economic boosterism and support for children. What they have delivered is a severe re-duction in tax revenue partially offset by heavy borrowing through the state transportation department to help pay state government’s general expenses.

These politicians do not face up to the financial realities of the state’s ill-designed and significantly underfunded pub-lic employee retirement system. And our legislature engages in antics that waste time, money and the state’s reputation in every quarter of the land. What ,indeed, is the matter with Kansas?

One answer is that Kansas is becoming the land that time forgot. Since the 1940s, Kansas’ population has grown .8 percent per year while the nation as a whole has grown nearly two and a half times as fast — 1.9 percent per year. If we had matched the national average, Kansas would have a population of 4.3 million — and six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Instead we are 2.9 million in number and much less diverse than the rest of the country. At our growth rate, we’re moving inexorably toward the congressional repre-sentational status of Wyoming, Montana and Alaska.  Since the 1980s, our population growth has only slightly exceeded the nat-ural increase arising from the difference of births over deaths. This is pretty clear circum-stantial evidence that people are migrating to Kansas in numbers insufficient to change our colors, faiths or attitudes.

Among our youngest citizens, the number of children enrolled in public K-12 schools grew from 466,778 in the 2006-07 school year to 485,147 in 2012-13. That’s 3.9 percent,or 18,369 students, in seven years. While enrollment of Kansas students in all types of higher education has grown from 157,000 to 167,000 between aca-demic year 2007-08 and 2012-13, the number of those students enrolled in the state’s public universities has actually fallen by more than 2,100.

On that subject, we keep pumping out about 40,000 degree or certificate recipients a year, but our labor force declined from the peak in 2009 of 1,507,644 by 1.1 percent, to 1,490,707 in 2013.  The decline in our unem-ployment rate, much ballyhooed by conservatives, occurred not because of a measly 10,000 new jobs since the recessionary low of 2010 but because our workforce has contracted. The number of Social Security retirees has grown just as demographers predict, but those retiring from the workforce with a disability have jumped nearly 30 percent from just fewer than 58,000 in 2007 to nearly 75,000 in 2012.  Our best and brightest head for more favorable territories, while the less adventurous and more decrepit stay behind.

Those Kansans who are inward-looking, resistant to the trends of the ever-changing national culture and convinced that hellfire and judgment are not far off, are the most motivated public citizens in the state. Kansans with a more outward-looking and future-oriented view have been largely passive or ineffectual. It’s not original to assert that the re-wards of politics go to the active and involved. For now, the winners are on the angry right. But public opinion seems to crave a centrist, progressive vision. Can the energy be found to make it happen?

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