Kansas is in the midst of a baby bust.
Numbers released in May by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment tell the plain story: In 2022, there were 34,476 live births – a slight decrease from 34,697 births the year before, but a huge drop from the nearly 42,000 new Kansans born in 2008 amidst the Great Recession.
Put it in a different context – there were just 11.7 new babies born for every 1,000 Kansans in 2022.
That is a historically low number.
“This is the lowest birth rate for Kansas residents since the state created a centralized vital records system in 1911,” KDHE said.
Talk to demographers and you’ll hear myriad reasons explaining the bust. They’ll also tell you it’s not just a Kansas thing: Birth rates have been falling across the country for more than a decade.
“I think one of the things that’s apparent from that research is there’s no single explanation,” says Sarah Hayford, a sociologist at Ohio State University who studies family formation and reproductive health and has been tracking the national decline.
But observers say that other demographic shifts – young Kansans moving away from rural areas to cities, suburbs and very often out of state – have exacerbated the drop in births here.
“There’s the natural demographics, the echo of the baby bust, happening nationwide,” says Donna K. Ginther, director of the Institute for Policy & Social Research at the University of Kansas. “And then the second factor is that we have had disproportionately fertility-age families (that) have left the state. We’ve had a lot of outmigration.”
All of which means: There are fewer Kansans staying home. And those few are having fewer babies.
There will be ripple effects.
The bust is already being felt in the state’s K-12 schools, in places like Wilson – population 836 – in central Kansas, where residents fought and failed over the summer to disband their school district after the closing of their beloved community high school.
It might be coming for Kansas’ public universities in the not-too-distant future, then for the state’s workforce and economic development efforts after that.
The state is already poised to fall short of meeting a growing demand for college graduates this decade, Ginther told the Kansas Board of Regents earlier this fall. The state is projected to add another 54,000 jobs that require some level of college degree this decade. Overall, Kansas will need to fill 234,000 jobs with new grads by the end of the decade, but the expectation is that only about 200,000 newly minted professionals will stick around.
State and community leaders will have to grapple with the fallout of a baby bust, even as they contemplate solutions. They ask: Is more daycare needed? (Gov. Laura Kelly thinks so.) Medicaid expansion? Does Kansas need to do better at luring good jobs here? What about accepting migrant workers, who after all tend to have higher fertility rates? Are the state’s culture wars somehow to blame? What will happen to the state’s tax structure if there aren’t as many young families living here, buying houses and building wealth?
It can be difficult to suss out the bust – and its effects – from other issues facing Kansas leaders. The bust “is in the background” of so many debates already happening in Topeka, says Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Democrat from Lenexa.
Some Kansans are left worrying about the future of their communities.
“You start glancing at the communities that are dying or maybe died,” says Michael Kratky, a Wilson resident who fought the closure of his community high school, “and the first thing that goes is the schools.”
‘Gut-wrenching’ school closures
In fact, K-12 schools are feeling the effects already. During the 2021-22 school year, the state’s schools had an average daily attendance of around 405,000 students. That’s not a big drop from the beginning of the Great Recession – daily attendance was about 405,000 students then, as well – but it is a big drop from before the pandemic: An average of 445,000 students attended Kansas schools in 2017-18, before COVID set in.
Some of that drop can be traced to COVID. “Some parents and students didn’t like certain COVID policies, like masking and whether the district required or didn’t require it,” Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, told The Topeka Capital-Journal in December. But, he said, birth rate declines and shrinking populations were also starting to leave some districts in a lurch.
Small districts, like the Claflin-based Unified School District 112 that shut down Wilson High School, are struggling already: Wilson’s high school enrollment declined by 50% over 10 years.
But urban areas aren’t immune from a crunch. In Lawrence, the school board voted last March to close down Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementary schools. One reason? Fewer young kids: There were 1,232 births in Douglas County in 2009 – and just 962 in 2022. (Johnson and Sedgwick counties also saw fewer births over that same time period.) There were 822 kindergarteners in the Lawrence district during the 2013-14 school year, but just 718 for the 2022-23 school year. A consultant’s projections suggested that number could go as low as 544 students for the 2025-26 school year.
Shannon Kimball, a longtime member of the Lawrence school board, says declining birth rates weren’t the only reason for the closures. “Everything that we do is more expensive,” she says, “and we do more now than we did a decade ago for students.” Everything from teacher pay to the cost of insurance goes into bottom-line decisions.
In Kansas, though, where schools are funded based on their enrollment numbers – during the school year, districts received a base rate of $5,088 per student. Every lost student means a tighter budget. That’s where the baby bust comes into play. “The districts that have increasing enrollment each year, they have new money each year,” Kimball says. And those districts “are the ones who tend to be able to keep up with increases in staff pay and increases in costs.”
Lawrence, at the moment, isn’t one of those districts.
Such explanations aren’t satisfying to parents like Melody Alexander, whose stepdaughter and son attended Pinckney in its final year. “The kids loved their teachers. We loved the parents that were involved,” she says. “I felt like it was a place where I could go and feel like I knew what was happening in my children’s education.”
The closure of Pinckney “was gut-wrenching, to be honest,” she says. The process left her angry. “To me, it felt like the school board … knew what outcome they wanted.”
Kansas’ school funding formula lets districts receive aid based on their highest enrollment in the preceding two years – a measure aimed at cushioning any financial shock for declining districts. State legislators tried tweaking that formula this year, but Kelly line-item vetoed the measure, saying she was defending rural schools. That suggests more battles over diminishing resources are probably ahead, and not just in communities as disparate as Wilson and Lawrence, but also at the state level.
Says KU’s Ginther: “There’s going to be a retrenchment in higher education and K-12 education.”
A good thing?
So why is the birth rate declining? Can anything be done? Should anything be done? Having a child is one of the most personal decisions a person or family can make, after all – and people can get tetchy if government starts wading into those choices.
Hayford, the Ohio State demographer, isn’t so sure there is a problem.
“If people aren’t getting pregnant and having children when they don’t want to, that seems like it’s probably a good thing,” she says. Society can adapt to those decisions.
“On the other hand,” Hayford adds, “it’s also the case that people say they want to have two or three children on average in the United States, and they tend to end up having one or two children on average. And so maybe that’s a bad thing that people aren’t having the children they wanted or maybe it’s just that they’re sort of doing other things instead or making other decisions.”
Kansas experts say the decline might bring more of those bad things.
“Over the last decade, wages were not going up – we had a pretty slow economy across the state, not creating new opportunities,” says Jeremy Hill, director of Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research. (For the record: He’s one expert who won’t say that Kansas is experiencing a baby bust: Kansas’ birth rate of 11.7 children per 1,000 residents far and away beats China’s number of 6.77, after all. That’s a bust.) That dearth of opportunities, he says, helped lead to the ongoing exodus of Kansans of child-bearing age.
“When there’s not labor demand, and a millennial looks around … “ he says, his voice trailing off.
But it’s not just job opportunities, Ginther says.
She rattled off a list of reasons it is difficult for many young Kansans to even think about having a baby. There’s the cost of child care: “Infant care in the state of Kansas costs more than in-state tuition at KU,” she says. For young professionals, there is the burden of student debt. “You see evidence that people who have high student loan balances are slower to marry, slower to buy a house, slower to have kids.” There’s also the cost and availability of housing.
“These choices,” Ginther says, “all fit together.”
There are signs that Kansas’ leaders are trying to knock down some of these obstacles. Kelly spent much of the summer campaigning for expanded child care options in Kansas. In June, for example, she announced $43 million in grant funding to create more than 4,000 new “child care slots” across the state.
“This will benefit the workforce of today as we nurture and care for our children, who will become the workforce of tomorrow,” said Melissa Rooker, executive director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, in the grant funding news release.
As for job opportunities, well, those might be coming around as well. A new Panasonic battery plant at DeSoto is expected to create as many as 4,000 tech-manufacturing jobs, while another 2,000 jobs might be created at the proposed Integra semiconductor plant near Wichita.
“Those might be opportunities to really start growing the state in terms of its workforce – and, by proxy, families,” Ginther says.
Sykes thinks there is more work to be done.
“Our high school graduates who are leaving and going to school outside. … How do we get them back? How do we keep the college graduates here?” she asks. Those grads “want someplace welcoming and accepting to work. They want public transportation. Those are things we haven’t always focused on in Kansas.” She adds: “We have to be open to not doing things how we’ve always done them.”
Whether all of this is enough to reverse the Kansas baby bust – and the state’s broader demographic slowdown – is an open question. In August, Hill’s center at Wichita State released projections showing that Kansas will grow more slowly over the next 50 years than had previously been predicted, and much more slowly than the nation as a whole.
Still, Hill pronounces himself “optimistic.”
“People move here when there’s opportunity,” he says, “even during recessions.” Right now there seems to be a growing number of opportunities.
That doesn’t mean the baby bust will become a boom. But it does mean that the situation could improve.
“There are things to do that could change the trajectory,” Hill says. “It’s not the worst trajectory. We’re saying Kansas is still growing.”
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.