Managing the Trends by Gregg Motley


The unmistakable trend toward urbanization of American spells bad news economically for those of us who live in rural areas.  It means increased government spending in larger municipalities, increased state and federal representation by urban areas in our capitals, and more of our tax dollars being exported to benefit our big city brothers and sisters.  Just how strong is this trend?  Let us take a look at some of the numbers relative to our 3,140 counties in the last 120 years:




US Pop.* % Pop in Urban Counties # Rural Counties that Lost Pop. # Rural Americans* # Urban Americans*
1900 76 32.4% Unknown 51.4 24.6
2000 282 84.3% 576 44.3 237.8
2010 309 85.0% 1,082 46.4 262.7
2020 331 86.3% 1,660 45.3 285.7

(*) numbers in millions


The American trend toward urbanization has been going on since 1941, but has accelerated in the latter half of the 20th Century and the first two decades of the 21st.  For the first time since the number of states reached 50, rural America experienced a net loss of population between census years.  Column space does not allow me to get into the numbers, but the loss is more acute in the farm belt as compared to rural counties in energy sectors such as North Dakota and Pennsylvania.


Besides shuttered stores and deteriorating homes and infrastructure, the biggest threat to rural America is the increased taxation for those of us left behind.  Generally, local governments have not reduced in size as a result of the population loss, and costs have increased.  The highest mill levies in Kansas are in rural counties, including Bourbon.  We have held the line in recent years, but decades of gradual increases have taken their toll on us.  Urban counties can manage their mill levy much easier because of population increases and healthy jumps in total assessed valuation.


What is there to do?  We have to play both offense and defense.  We have to continue to work to fix problems that inhibit our growth and contribute to those wanting to move away, especially our high school graduates.  We have to dedicate ourselves to economic development, grant writing, and tourism.  With our time, talent and treasure, we have to invest in our not-for-profits who suport our most vulnerable and improve our culture.  We have to get behind our schools, even if we do not have school-aged children, and work to make them the best that we can muster.

How do we play defense?  That is the subject for next week’s column.

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