For many years, the belief has been that to reverse the depopulation of rural Kansas, we needed new jobs and diversification of the agricultural-based economy. But ever more, it looks like the bigger issue is housing.
Consider that in October, just four of 46 western Kansas counties had an unemployment rate of 3 percent or more, and those four barely were more than 3 percent. Even if a new industry were attracted to any place in the region, the question would be where to find the people for the jobs.
And as a story Sunday in The Hutchinson News explains, if people came looking for a new job, they would have a hard time finding a place to live. Ironically, even though population across rural western Kansas has declined steadily since 1950, small towns face an acute housing shortage.
A Wichita State University rural housing study found that 91 percent of economic development directors who responded said rural housing issues hindered the local labor market. Also, 74 percent of respondents said the availability of housing was affecting the hiring decisions of local employers, while 71 percent said fewer workers were being hired because of the housing shortage. Ö
For three years, the Kansas Legislature has approved $2 million a year for administering and supporting housing programs. However, thatís not making a big impact, and with the state facing a gaping budget shortfall, the resources arenít there to do much more, if even that.
Meanwhile, for Gov. Sam Brownback, who has been a champion of finding solutions to the rural population drain, stories like that of a cabinet manufacturer in Quinter have to be deflating. The company needed to expand; however, the town of 955 people didnít have adequate housing. So the company left and went to Colorado.
Stories like that illustrate that the problem isnít jobs but housing. Ö
Brownback and lawmakers should review current programs such as Rural Opportunity Zones, which apply to a limited target population. More widely available tax incentives are needed to encourage people to build new homes and residential developers to take a risk in rural Kansas communities.
ó The Hutchinson News