If you asked the average person where they thought Kansans were moving in the state, many would point to the expanding urban centers of Johnson County as their first answer and would put the state’s many rural counties at the bottom of the list. But the real story isn’t that black and white: Johnson County isn’t a monolith, and rural counties aren’t a pushover when it comes to migration either.
In recent years, more Kansans have left the state than come in: 192,918 between 2000 and 2022 to be exact. When people move, they take their families, their businesses, and other financial impacts on the community too. The IRS reports this migration data in the form of adjusted gross income (AGI) – a measurement of wages and other financial gains. By this measure, between 2020 and 2021, Kansas had a net loss of $234.2 million in AGI going to other states across the country. Over this same time period, Kansas gained a net $6.5 million from international migration, but this is a meager 2.8% of the net loss from domestic migration.
The IRS also breaks down the data for in-state migration and Kansas residents moving from county to county. The data from 2012 to 2021 is an interesting look into where people are moving across county lines but still within the state itself. Information about the total AGI in a county is only available through 2020. It will be interesting to see how, or if, COVID impacted these movements as newer data becomes available.
40 counties had a net positive of AGI coming into its borders, whereas the other 65 didn’t. The highest net inflow of AGI went to Johnson County, which saw a net $331 million move into its borders. One of the biggest contributors to Johnson County’s inflow this was Sedgwick County, where $245 million moved from. Inly $131.9 million moved from Johnson County to Sedgwick County. It wasn’t all gains for Johnson County though: it lost a net of $120.8 million to Miami County and $62.4 million to Leavenworth County—both KC Metro counties but does raise questions about continued metro-area growth. Furthermore, Johnson’s net AGI gain from 2012 to 2021 was equal to 0.96% of its total AGI in 2020.
Some of Kansas’s largest counties by population had the largest net loss of AGI. The third largest county by population, Shawnee, also was on the biggest losers with a net loss of $118.8 million. That’s equal to 2.26% of its total AGI in 2020. $67.6 million went from Shawnee to Jackson County (directly north of Shawnee County, home of Topeka) while only $55.5 million moved the other way. Similarly, Wyandotte County lost $111.7 million: the largest net loss was to Leavenworth County, again directly adjacent, of $93.2 million.
There were large disparities between some of Kansas’s counties whose total AGI was more than $1 billion. Miami County’s net AGI inflow was 9.7% of its total 2020 AGI. Leavenworth’s was 7.1%.
67 of Kansas’s 105 counties have a population of less than 10,000 people, totaling 314,149 people in these more rural counties across the state. The recurring images of empty towns may give off the first impression that these counties will be completely vacated. But that isn’t necessarily the case. The counties only had a net AGI loss of $21.8 million to other parts of the state: for comparison, Johnson County lost a net of $62.4 million alone to Leavenworth County alone over the same period. The 95 counties that total about a third of Kansas’s population lost $188.5 million to the other 10 counties.
Across the country, 35% of rural counties were at their peak population in 2010. In some cases, this was because rural communities themselves are concentrating in certain rural counties.
Of the 93 counties whose total AGI’s in 2020 were less than $1 billion, 19 had net inflows that were more than 2% of their 2020 AGI and 56 had net outflows that exceeded 2% of their 2020 AGI. The other 40 had relatively minor net changes in AGI.
The county that lost the most AGI was Washington County in north-central Kansas. A net $358 million left the county: that’s 240.7% of the county’s total AGI in 2020. However, much of it went to neighboring counties: $130.1 million to Cloud County, $92.4 million to Republic County, and $53 million to Jewell County among them.
The above graph maps out each county’s net domestic AGI gains or losses as a percent of its total AGI in 2020. A few major points are visible on the map:
1. As a percentage, the biggest domestic migration gains weren’t in Johnson or Sedgwick County, but rather many counties just outside the largest metro areas in the state, like Wabaunsee, Morris, and Pottawatomie. Counties like Leavenworth and Miami also had significant gains and bordered larger existing counties like Wyandotte and Johnson.
2. While the raw gains and losses appear small in Western Kansas, as a percentage, they’re large – especially along the southwest border with Colorado.
Here’s a similar heat map for population change – except it tells a slightly different story of growth – particularly in western Kansas. For instance, Logan County lost 1.6% of its population, but gained 3.6% of its AGI in net migration to the area.
The decision to move from one county or one state to the next is a multidimensional one that certainly takes into account non-economic decisions. And yet, local policymakers have the power to affect two of the biggest factors though: cost of living and economic opportunity. These two issues are intertwined with day-to-day tax and spending policy. Logan County lost 1.6%. Similarly, several counties like Gove, Scott, Finney, Ellis, and Ford managed to have population growth despite having a loss of AGI out of the county.
Local Leadership and Growth
A multitude of factors affect someone’s decision to move across county lines. One of the biggest ones is property taxes. Some homeowners might decide to move to a new home if local leadership is outpricing them out of their current one.
Take the city of Iola for instance. A rural homestead valued at $150,000 in Iola pays 3,241 in net property taxes at a rate of 2.160%. By comparison, the exact same homestead across the border in Walsenburg, Colorado – a town of similar size – pays only $875 in net property tax at a rate of 0.583%. Similarly, a $1 million commercial property in Iola pays the highest property tax compared to identical properties in rural towns in every other state. All the while, Iola’s county, Allen County, has had its property tax grow by 331% between 1997 and 2021 while its population declined by 14% and inflation was 61%.
High taxation is caused by high spending too: according to a 2018 KPI study of county budgets, Shawnee County spent $833 per resident while nearby Douglas County only spent $655. More efficient operations and budgeting is key to lowering the burden of the government on people and businesses. Things like zoning reform for affordable housing or petitioning state legislators to make tax agreements for remote workers easier are two ways to approach the same issues instead of wasteful incentive programs that try and attract new residents.