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Vol. 29, No. 1 Spring 2007

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Baby Boomers and Immigrants on the Range: Population Trends in Kansas
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Baby Boomers and Immigrants on the Range: Population Trends in Kansas

Làszló J. Kulcsàr


Demography is an important component of socioeconomic development, because population trends shape development paths. Population size and composition are related to a wide variety of factors in social organization and economic vitality, such as employment, taxation, consumption, housing, environmental pressure, transportation, business location, voting patterns, education, law enforcement, and healthcare. Population change can be a response to, as well as an agent for, changing social organization and economic structure (Brown, 2002). Therefore, it is very important to understand these trends, including their interrelationship, for successful development planning and policy implementation, especially that due to increasing global integration rural areas and economies are no longer isolated from mainstream economic, political and societal processes (Summers 1993).

Sociologists and demographers have long been aware of prolonged population decline in the Great Plains (Rathge and Highman, 1998; Johnson and Rathge, 2006), caused partly by the "great agricultural transition" discussed by Lobao and Meyer (2001). Population decline, however, is a relative term, and it covers different dynamics for different places across the Plains. The aggregate population of the Great Plains is not shrinking yet, but its growth rate is well below the national level. Trends at the county level differ greatly between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan places. Many rural areas experience actual population decrease, and their age structure and migration patterns suggest prolonged decline for the future as well. Localized, positive net migration in the Great Plains is usually associated with either suburbanization or the availability natural amenities (Cromartie, 1998).

Present day Kansas has three main demographic challenges: increasing population concentration in urban areas, increasing population diversity, and the aging population. None of these three are new phenomena, but slowly unfolding macro level trends corresponding with general demographic dynamics in the United States. This study investigates these trends in detail and discusses the related development implications and possible future paths for Kansas.

Population Concentration

In the 20th century, the population of Kansas increased from 1.5 to about 2.7 million people, growing approximately 8% per decade. In the decade before the last decennial census, Kansas grew at 8.5%, compared to the national average of 13.2%. Historically, when comparing two decennial censuses, Kansas has experienced 5 to 10% less growth than the nation (Figure 1), and 67 of the 105 counties reached their peak total population by 1930. In the 1990s, only 9 counties experienced growth equal to or greater than the national average growth rate.

Even this slow growth occurs unevenly in space. The population of Kansas is much more concentrated today than in the beginning of the 20th century (Figure 2). On average, most rural counties account for less than only 0.5% of the state’s population. But neither the slow population growth nor the population concentration should be surprising. The Great Plains had very similar population dynamics over the 20th century (Johnson and Rathge, 2006). The Depression and the Dust Bowl caused many people to leave rural areas, while the post-war mechanization of agriculture, farm consolidation, and the industrial boom were also responsible for population concentration (Table 1).

Farm consolidation in Kansas was a process inherently linked to urban concentration, embedded into the general transformation of rural America. In fifty years, the number of farms declined more than 50%, while their average size doubled. The farm population of the state declined from almost half a million people to below a hundred thousand. While in 1950 about one in every four persons in Kansas lived on farms, now this proportion is less than one in every thirty (Table 1).

Despite the image of Kansas as part of the nation’s breadbasket, urbanization has been one of the most profound changes over the 20th century. The proportion of the urban population of Kansas reached 71% in 2000, up from 52% in 1950. This population concentration occurred in and around those counties that host the three large urban centers: Kansas City, Topeka, and Wichita. Applying the 2000 metropolitan status definition, the nine metropolitan counties gained more than 130,000 people on average over the 20th century. At the same time, the average population growth in the 96 non-metropolitan counties was only 152 people. The average county population increased from 15,000 to 25,000 over the 20th century, but this increase was exclusively the population boom of the existing or would-be metropolitan areas. The average population of a rural Kansas county remained around 12,000 people over the course of 20th century. There are six counties in Kansas that lost population in each decade since 1900, and 37 that had a negative net migration rate in each decade since 1950.

While metropolitan counties rapidly gained population, and most rural areas faced slow population decline, some non-metropolitan counties were able to turn around this declining trend. Of those nine counties that experienced growth between 1990 and 2000 equal to or greater than the national average, three are not metropolitan hinterlands, but destinations for immigrant laborers who come to work in the food processing industry in Southwest Kansas. These workers contributed to increasing population diversity in the state.

Increasing Diversity

Population diversity refers to both the ethnic and racial composition of the population, as well as the proportion of foreign born people. Kansas, like many rural Midwest regions, has been ethnically homogeneous and predominantly white for most of the 20th century. Until the 1960s, more than 95% of the state’s population was white. However, this proportion declined to 86% by 2000, mostly taking place in the 1990s. Similarly, the foreign born population of Kansas also increased, from 1% in 1970 to 5% in 2000.

There are two causes for increasing population diversity in Kansas—one general and one specific. The general cause is Kansas experiences the same trend as the United States as a whole. Increasing immigration to the U.S. after the 1970s caused the population to become more diverse. At the same time the increasing social tolerance for racial diversity resulted in a geographically less concentrated minority population. This process was supported by the increasing urban concentration, since urban areas are traditionally more diverse than rural areas. Hence, population concentration in Kansas was one driving force for increasing population diversity.

In addition to this general cause, Kansas experienced a particular phenomenon which contributed to increasing population diversity. The most remarkable contemporary migration trend in non-metropolitan Kansas was the influx of workers into the food processing industry. As a result, three southwestern Kansas counties that were primary meat processing areas experienced changing population trends. These are Finney County (Garden City), Ford County (Dodge City) and Seward County (Liberal). The food processing industry changed the demographic trends for a number of communities, both in terms of population size and composition.

Corporate recruitment strategies have a large impact in developing these new migration streams (Krissman, 2000). Once migration networks develop, they provide linkages between origin and destination, and not only help to overcome the obstacles by diminishing risks, but also increase the volume of migration over time by providing positive feedbacks for further migrants (Massey, 1990). In some cases, firms rely more on such informal networks than on traditional recruitment strategies, since they can get a steady supply of unorganized, low-skilled, low-wage workers (Kandel and Parrado, 2006).

The net migration rate of the foreign-born population in Kansas between 1995 and 2000 was 47.6 compared to the rate of –5.2 in the native population. About 35 thousand (approximately one-fourth) of the foreign-born living population in Kansas in 2000 were abroad in 1995. More than half of the 114 percent increase in the foreign born population between 1990 and 2000 was a result of newcomers arriving in the U.S. in the 1990s. In other words, the growth of the foreign-born population was not a result of the redistribution of long term foreign-born residents, but the emergence of a new migration flow attributed to the presence of the food processing industry concentrated in Southwest Kansas (Figure 3).

Many of the workers are from Latin America, making Hispanics the largest ethnic group in Garden City, Dodge City and Liberal, all meat industry boomtowns (Figure 4). This corresponds to a larger structural redistribution trend of the Hispanic population, which has two basic characteristics. First, there is an unprecedented Hispanic population boom outside urban areas, and second, there is a regional change of Hispanics who no longer live only in the southwestern states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, and California (Kandel and Parrado 2006).

While increasing diversity helped to stabilized the decline in population, many aspects of community development remained a challenge for rural places with insufficient resources to accommodate the needs of their new populations (Broadway and Stull, 2006). Healthcare, education, and housing were the most urgent issues to address, given the linguistic isolation of the new immigrants. Moreover, the high turnover in the meat processing industry created mixed results related to economic multiplier effects, due to the presence of a transient population which is less integrated into the local community.

Migration is age-selective for those in their 20s and 30s, so the new immigrants helped slow down the aging population trend in Southwest Kansas. Elsewhere in the state, especially in rural areas, population aging is one of the most significant challenges for community development.

Population Aging

The demographic dynamics behind the aging population reflect a complex web of societal processes, albeit with relatively simple demographic root causes. First, declining mortality resulted in high life expectancy at birth, increasing the number of people who survive to old age. Second, declining fertility changed the overall age composition. With fewer children born, the younger population cannot balance out the increase of the older population. The third factor is migration, and this made most of the difference for Kansas. Until the late 1980s, Kansas was characterized by the out-migration of the younger generation who left the state for job opportunities elsewhere. At the local level there are various dynamics in age composition. Urban places resemble the average U.S. age distribution, while places without significant labor attraction are slowly ending in a vicious cycle of disappearing businesses, diminishing capacity to retain the younger generations and shrinking population dominated by the elderly cohorts.

The national context of this trend is the aging of the Baby Boomer generation. Those who were born during the postwar fertility boom are close to retirement and this transition alone will increase the number and proportion of elderly population nationwide. In this context, population decline in the Midwest, perpetuated by age-selective out-migration from the region, will pose a significant economic development challenge for many rural communities.

Historically, Kansas mirrored the aging trends of the United States (Kulcsàr and Bolender, 2006), although the percent population 65 and older has always been higher in our state. During the 20th century, the 15-or-younger population group declined from 35 to 22 percent (Figure 5). Most of this decline occurred before 1950. Shortly after the Second World War the period of high birth rates, known as the Baby Boom, resulted in a short period of proportionate increase of younger people, helping to create a population rise.

At the same time, the proportion of 65 and above increased from 4 to 13 percent. Interestingly, this process was not affected by the Baby Boom. One could expect a temporary decline in the proportion of 65 and above when the proportion of 15 and younger increases. Since it did not occur in Kansas, we can conclude that the proportionate decline was concentrated in the working age population (between 15 and 65), especially in the 1960s when Kansas lost more than 130,000 people (about six percent of its population) due to out-migration.

Contemporary demographic dynamics are good predictors of future trends. According to Census Bureau projections, the population of Kansas will increase by approximately 252,000 people by 2030. This population increase however is very unevenly distributed across various age groups. Most of the increase (237,000 people) will occur in the 65+ age category. In other words, out of every ten people Kansas gains in the next 25 years, nine will be 65 or above. This projection does not count retirement migration streams to Kansas. These people are already here: they are the active Baby Boomers who will retire by 2030. This will change the age composition of the state, and due to its uneven geographic distribution will mean significant problems for many communities.

What are some examples of social change and community development challenges regarding population aging? One of the most important challenges communities face is institutional care and the provision of related community services. These services have functions that exceed healthcare needs and maintain a social network of older people (Luetz et al, 1993). The integration of the elderly into community life is vital for long-term community development. Also, while Social Security provides a basic income for older people, it makes a significant difference in the status of the elderly whether they can accumulate personal savings or if they have the opportunity for part-time work. Urban and suburban communities have a better chance at providing these opportunities, while rural communities have a disadvantage.

The issue of the family network is closely related to the living arrangements of the elderly. While the basic preference is to live in an independent household as long as one can, such independence is strongly contingent on supportive family and community networks, as well as transportation possibilities, physically accessible housing, and local social services. Research indicates that with regard to housing and transportation, especially, older people in rural areas have a traditional disadvantage (Coward, 1988).

Population aging in Kansas, similarly to other Midwest states, is ahead of the United States as a whole. This aging is very different from what one sees in popular retirement destinations, such as Florida or Arizona. Aging in Kansas is, first of all, aging in place. The Baby Boom cohort, which had a mitigating impact on aging in the mid-20th century, will have an accelerating impact on aging very soon. In Kansas, this will mean that community challenges with respect to aging will intensify, with spatially less mobile and socially and economically more disadvantaged elderly population.


Demographic trends in Kansas include increasing population concentration, slow population growth, increasing population diversity, and aging in place. These trends are similar to what is experienced across the Midwest. The increasing global integration of rural America will result in gradual demographic convergence when general trends will be more and more applicable to Kansas as well. This demographic convergence however occurs in the context of spatial heterogeneity, due to various levels of community capacity to address traditional and new challenges.

Spatial inequalities in Kansas will probably increase in the future, and this will result in increasing socioeconomic inequalities as well. Immigration, for instance, will have a substantive impact on general social change in the state, but it will be concentrated in Southwest Kansas and in the large metropolitan areas. Population growth will occur mostly in metropolitan places and their outlying areas, which will accelerate the aging population trend in most rural counties. Aging at county level has a strong negative impact on income and there is a certain path-dependency, since the aging situation in 1950 is a relatively good predictor of income in 1999. Furthermore, the process of population aging is very difficult to change. The fact that it can be a persistent problem in certain counties for 50 years indicates that in many cases, local communities are ill-prepared to address development challenges that arise from population aging. Aging itself is not a problem, though the difficulties are results of insufficient community capacity to address new challenges.

The population concentration in Kansas has important implications for policy-making and representation in state legislation. Since population dynamics in Kansas are driven by urban population processes, rural places are disadvantaged because urban population dynamics can mask rural problems. This means that sparsely populated rural areas might have difficulties receiving statewide attention.

We also have to ask whether policy makers have sufficient information to assess these trends at both the state and local levels. Detailed knowledge about past demographic trends and contemporary dynamics can help Kansas communities prepare for today’s challenges. And in the midst of an increasing diversity of interests and agendas, state policy should enhance local capacity to help communities make better decisions.


1. This study was presented at the 2006 Kansas Economic Policy Conference at the University of Kansas.


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About the author

Làszló J. Kulcsàr is Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work and Director, Kansas Population Center, Kansas State University.

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