Middle of Nowhere: The Forgotten Heartland and Mythology of Kansas

Kansas is in a compromised state: there is a deeply concerning economic stagnation happening in America’s heartland. Part of it has to do with an aggressive type of neoliberal realpolitik that has shredded the governance structures from having the programs needed to help bolster the state’s vibrance. The lack of taxes being paid by its population and the shredding of government agencies has had an opposite effect than intended initially to spur growth for the state through an experimental budget for the state which wreaked financial havoc (ideologically, the idea is that less taxes would spur growth). In the case for Kansas, the tax cuts were an extreme kind of neoliberalism that has caused the state real harm. The state is currently trying to manage this disrepair.

This is not just a red and blue issue, the heartland is in dire straights and there is no clear path to spur growth, but shredding taxes and government agencies is also not the answer. At this point, the state of Kansas needs a large philanthropic donation to help subsidize lack of government programs, spur economic development, and bring more vibrance back to this state.

The state of the nation depends on the vibrance of all states.

For the first time in years, Kansas has a Democratic Governor. Why is that? The realization that the course that this state is on as it previously had been as a staunchly “red state” is no longer working out. That’s a fact. Join me as I explore how Kansas is an economic thermometer for America. Furthermore, this state has its own mythology as part of American culture:

  • Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz is from Kansas
  • Superman is from “Smallville,” Kansas
  • Little House on the Prairie is in Kansas

How many people can say that they appreciate Kansas? Likely a huge number of Americans can tell you that’s what they know about Kansas from popular culture which includes the above films and books, which is great, but do they know what’s really been happening there in current times? It’s not been doing well.

The reality is, the state has had a decline in population size for the last 80 years. As a result, the state has taken drastic measures to improve population growth which is not limited to aggressively cutting government agencies in order to offer up to $15,000 for people to help pay their student loans in exchange to move to certain counties that need larger population sizes. This is a program that was created in clear desperation because people have been fleeing Kansas, mostly because there is a lack of opportunity. There is hope though.

The current Democratic Governor of Kansas, Laura Kelly, has taken steps to ensure that there are policy changes. For example, the experimental Kansas budget led by former Governor Sam Brownback led to cuts in schools, roads, and public safety. Governor Kelly is working to reverse those changes currently. They should be reversed with swift action.

A few other actions that Governor Kelly has worked toward is improving the pay for educators, thus improving the education system by attracting talented educators to the heartland.

She is also currently working to expand Medicaid to ensure that more people have access to healthcare. She also worked to reinstate LGBTQ equal workers rights. The policies being presented by Governor Kelly are sensible and in the interest for the economic wellbeing of the state. Clearly, states need some basic infrastructure to help spur economic growth, not aggressively cutting government services.

Marketing for the heartland of this nation has always been a challenge. Early into its history, the marketing message made to be appealing was FREE LAND. This was initially to draw in farmers. Now, one of the pulls was the following: “We will pay for some of your student loans if you come live in one of our counties.” Is that a sustainable offer? Likely not, as the program needed to be subsidized and there is no guarantee or expectation that people will stay for the long haul: this experimental budget led to serious infrastructure cuts which caused damage to the state.

Kansas may not be getting the structural attention that it deserves, but my eye is on Kansas as the pulse of economics in America, as it can be on the upswing when sensible policies and fiscal priorities are in place.

Tom Welling portraying Clark Kent (Superman).
In the long run, the yellow brick road is sensible fiscal policies which sustain government programs. Ideally, philanthropy can also help bolster the state’s economic wellbeing. Furthermore, all states should have a similar outlook in its policy management.

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