MONA ISKANDER: Traveling this stretch of highway 36 in rural northwest Kansas in the dead of winter… it’s very quiet. This is the road that leads to the town of Phillipsburg. The population: just over 2,500. There’s only one set of stoplights, one movie theatre and several restaurants.
Amber and Patrick Patterson grew up here.
PATRICK PATTERSON: Everybody knows everybody. You know, everybody helps out everybody. It’s– nice.
MONA ISKANDER: The Pattersons were high school sweethearts. They went to college in Hays, Kansas a city of about 20,000 people an hour away. Like most young people from around here, they didn’t think they’d be back given the lack of opportunities.
PATRICK PATTERSON: So I’d say the job market is probably one of the things that– made it hardest to come back. ‘Cause a lot of the jobs around here are set. People have been doing’ their job for a long time. And we didn’t think there’d be any available to– come back.
MONA ISKANDER: In fact jobs and people have been disappearing from rural Kansas and most of the Great Plains for the last 80 years… it started in the 1930s during the Dust Bowl and accelerated with the mechanization of farming in the 1960s. Fewer workers were needed than ever before in farming and other industries.
SAM BROWNBACK: I’ve been around rural Kansas all my life. I was raised in rural Kansas. I’ve seen it decline for 50 years.
MONA ISKANDER: Sam Brownback is the Republican Governor of Kansas. He vowed to take action after the most recent census in which most counties reported a loss to their population. Brownback’s idea was to create something like a new homestead act – much like the one that lured people to these rural areas in the late nineteenth century with the promise of free land.
SAM BROWNBACK: I think there’s something worth preserving. It’s– about knowing the person that grows the food that you’re eating. It’s about forming a community. Well, we already have that. It’s Phillipsburg, Kansas. It’s Parker, Kansas. And you– know not only the person, you known their parents and maybe their grandparents. Why destroy it? This is– this is a beautiful community. We just need to give it some economic activity.
MONA ISKANDER: His idea was to create what are called rural opportunity zones and in 2011 the state legislature overwhelmingly approved the plan. The ROZ program works like this: if you’re a college grad with student loan debt, you can get up to $15,000 over five years just to move to a designated rural county in Kansas that has experienced a loss in population. Those coming from outside of Kansas won’t pay state income taxes.
SAM BROWNBACK: There’s an old western saying that if you’ll wear out a pair of boots living here, you’ll live here the rest of your life. Well, in five years, you’d wear out a pair of boots. And I– think we’re going to have a great chance of getting people. And not only getting people. I think we’ll have people coming home that have wanted to come back for some period of time.
MONA ISKANDER: The help with their student loans is what brought the Pattersons back to Phillipsburg in 2012. Between the two of them they owed $46,000 after graduating from Fort Hays State University.
AMBER PATTERSON: Without ROZ I honestly don’t know if we would be here. ‘Cause we were– we were questioning it so much on whether we could make it work. With– our student loan payments and rent payment.
PATRICK PATTERSON: We felt like without it was a gamble…, you know, to—- come back if—
AMBER PATTERSON: ROZ—
PATRICK PATTERSON: –with– without it.
AMBER PATTERSON: ROZ made it that much easier.
MONA ISKANDER: Patrick started off working odd jobs until he landed a position at a credit union. And Amber found work in customer relations at a pharmacy in town.
The state and participating counties split the cost of student loan reimbursement for people like the Pattersons. Last year the total cost of the ROZ program was $838,000.
MONA ISKANDER: You’ve built a reputation as a conservative Republican both in the senate and now as governor. So you’re not known exactly for big government programs. Doesn’t something like this fly in the face of– the– principles that you espouse.
SAM BROWNBACK: I’m a growth guy. It’s about creating opportunities for people. And they may decide to take ’em. They may not. But it’s about growth and creating those– opportunities that to me is very consistent with what I’ve tried to be about.
MONA ISKANDER: But the governor admits that the plan is a gamble. There’s no guarantee or requirement that people taking advantage of the ROZ program will stay in these rural parts.
Take 27-year-old Kellen Adams. He moved to the small town of Logan in Phillips County seven months ago from a bigger city in Kansas. Adams lives here with his girlfriend.
He’s receiving $3,000 a year for the next five years from the state and county.
But he told us even before he applied to the ROZ program he had accepted a job as principal of the town’s only school. But ultimately, he doesn’t see himself staying here.
KELLEN ADAMS: And the reason why is I don’t want to take my current superintendent’s job. And so– he and I have kind of– agreed that it’d probably be– in our best interest that I– pursue another position elsewhere. So.
MONA ISKANDER: So the opportunities are limited here.
KELLEN ADAMS: They are.
MONA ISKANDER: Adams says he plans on moving elsewhere in Kansas… but others may just leave the state.
MONA ISKANDER: You’re offering people, you know, up to $15,000– to help them with their student debt. What if these people come into these areas and they’re like, “Oh, great opportunity. You know, I was going to move here anyway. But let me just take advantage of this and then I’ll leave the state”?
SAM BROWNBACK: You could have some of that taking place. And there probably will be some of it.
You could see where we were and say, alright, we can choose to do nothing. That’s– that’s a legitimate policy choice. And we were 28th most populous state in America in the ’70s and we’re 33rd now, headed to 35th if we don’t break the trend line. But I don’t know any team or businesses that hires a coach or a leader to manage slower decline. Just manage the decline comfortably. You—- bring ’em in to change things.
MONA ISKANDER: So far more than 650 people are enrolled in the ROZ program – 36 of whom are living in Phillips County which includes the towns of Phillipsburg and Logan. But some question the long term impact of an initiative like this.
LASZLO KULCSAR: My assessment would be that this may help a few people or a few communities in a very small way but that it will not turn back depopulation.
MONA ISKANDER: Laszlo Kulcsar is a sociologist At Kansas State University who specializes in rural population trends. He says he doubts that young people will move to rural counties in large numbers because jobs are scarce and these areas lack the conveniences that can be found in larger towns. He showed me the projections for Phillips County.
LASZLO KULCSAR: The population has been going down since the 1900 census but according to the projections of the census bureau to 2030 we are going to see the same population decline.
MONA ISKANDER: When you speak to people who are involved in this initiative, they say, “You know, we’ve had– we’ve had people move back here. They are putting down roots. They are starting families. They are opening a business here and there.” I mean, isn’t that worth something?
LASZLO KULCSAR: It is worth something. It is very important for a place to show some sign of– vitality. So a place to show others that this is not a place that’s going to go away anytime soon. And it’s really– it does not work as much for others who may move there. But it does work on people who are thinking of moving away. So in that sense, that may help retaining the population that is still there.
MONA ISKANDER: For Kellen Adams, his decision to eventually leave is based squarely on where the jobs are.
KELLEN ADAMS: It has nothing’ to do with Logan or the school or anything else. But– I am looking for a position, you know– that would be obviously in the best interest of my family. And I have pretty big– dreams and goals. And so– I want to be able to– achieve those.
MONA ISKANDER: The Pattersons on the other hand, have long term plans to stay put. The success of the ROZ program will likely hinge on bringing more people like them to rural Kansas.