Are “Rural Opportunity Zones” a Good Deal?

Shelley writes in:

My husband and I have been considering moving to the Great Plains in order to enjoy smaller town life and much lower cost of living. I have been reading about Rural Opportunity Zones in Kansas and I am wondering what you think of them.

Rural Opportunity Zones are just that – rural areas where there’s an additional financial incentive to move there.

What’s a Rural Opportunity Zone?

Rural Opportunity Zones refers to a state system in Kansas whereby the state financially rewards people for moving into rural areas of the state from elsewhere. You can read all about the plan, but here’s the skinny:

Rural Opportunity Zones are 73 counties that have been authorized to offer one or both of the following financial incentives to new full-time residents:

  • Kansas income tax waivers for up to five years
  • Student loan repayments up to $15,000

Who’s Eligible?

To be eligible for Kansas income tax waivers, individuals must have:
1. established residency in a ROZ county on or after July 1, 2011
2. lived outside Kansas for five or more years immediately prior to establishing residency in a ROZ county
3. earned less than $10,000 in Kansas Source Income in each of the five years immediately prior to establishing residency in a ROZ county

To be eligible for student loan repayments, individuals must:
1. establish residency in a ROZ county after July 1, 2011 and on or after the date on which the county opts-in to the student loan program
2. hold an associate’s, bachelor’s or post-graduate degree
3. have an outstanding student loan balance

The program’s entire purpose is to use financial incentives to attract college graduates from out of state to move to rural Kansas.

If you’re a recent college graduate and have never lived in Kansas, moving into a Rural Opportunity Zone will net you up to $15,000 in student loan repayments and a five year waiver on Kansas state taxes. Since Kansas is a state that has state income tax and balances that with lower sales taxes and other taxes, it’s a pretty nice boon. If you earn a competitive salary, the program can easily save you $25,000 over the course of five years (and possibly more).

I’d look at it this way: if you qualify for the program, Kansas will pay you roughly $5,000 per year for the first five years you move there.

The question is whether that’s worth it to you.

Evaluating Kansas as a place to move

One key part of this decision is assessing life in Kansas. There are a number of factors worth considering.

Cost of Living

Kansas has a cost of living index of 88, which means that expenses that would cost $100 on average in the United States costs $88 on average in Kansas. If you’re moving from a high cost-of-living area, where cost of living indices are 150 or more, prices in Kansas (of things like housing and so on) will decline by almost half.

Political Ideology

Politically, western Kansas is very conservative, but eastern Kansas is moderate. If you’re politically conservative, you’ll probably fit in fine in most of the state, but if you’re politically liberal, you’ll want to focus on the eastern portion of the state.

Cultural Access

If you want to be near a major city for cultural events, eastern Kansas is close to Kansas City, but western Kansas is pretty isolated, with the nearest major city being Denver, on the order of three hours away. Some people value this, some do not.

Education

On standardized comparisons, Kansas has solid public schools, though the state has a history of educational controversies.

Crime

Most of Kansas has a low crime rate.

These are the types of evaluations you’d want to make of any destination where you might consider moving. Depending on what you value, Kansas might stack up well – or it might not.

Is this offer worth it?

It really comes down to whether the total package that Kansas provides – rural living, relatively low cost of living, conservative to moderate politics, solid education, and low crime – is a desirable living situation for you. If it is, then a Rural Opportunity Zone is probably a great idea for you, especially if you’re a fairly recent graduate still facing student loans. Even if it’s not a perfect situation for you, it still might be something worth considering.

Given the apparent success of the program, I would not be surprised to see similar programs pop up in other states looking to attract an educated work force. (For example, a bill creating such zones in Iowa appeared in 2012, though it was stuck in subcommittee.)

If you’re a fresh college graduate with student loans who would consider rural living for a while, this could be a strong financial opportunity.

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