The search for sustainable solutions to poverty in Johnson County took center stage Tuesday at the Ritz Charles in Overland Park during the 12th annual Human Service Summit held by United Community Services of Johnson County.
By JONATHAN BENDER
Special to The Star
Keynote speaker Erik Stegman, the manager of the Half In Ten Campaign at the Center for American Progress, discussed the need for creating jobs with a sustaining wage while maintaining a valid safety net as policymakers and businesses attempted to build the framework for those jobs.
Stegman highlighted what’s pushing people toward the poverty line and how Johnson County has mirrored national trends when it comes to the cost of health care and increases in income inequality. Both are potential obstacles to sustainable employment.
In his campaign’s annual report covering 2011 — the 2012 report will be completed in October of this year — Stegman saw the costs of health care decreasing nationally because of provisions in the Affordable Care Act. Still, out-of-pocket health care costs pushed 10.6 million Americans into poverty two years ago. In Johnson County, 49,000 residents are uninsured, about 9 percent of the population. Stegman noted that if Kansas were to accept the expansion of Medicaid, 17,640 residents would be eligible for health care coverage. And the number of potentially vulnerable residents continues to grow — the median annual income in Johnson County dropped 12.6 percent to $69,856 between 2008 and 2011.
“Income inequality is what it is for a reason. It’s not that people don’t want to work, it’s that they are not paid enough or there are barriers to employment,” said Stegman.
The future job market in Johnson County suggests more downward pressure on earning potential with seven of the 10 areas of greatest job growth between now and 2018 expected to have a median wage under $30,000 per year. Currently, a third of the jobs in Johnson County pay less than $30,000 annually.
Stegman’s point resonated with Roeland Park councilmember Megan England, who noted that simply searching for the biggest retailers to grow a city’s tax base might not be the best long-term solution for a community.
“Maybe we need to focus more on what kinds of jobs the retailers provide as one of the characteristics we look for,” said England.
In addition to wage concerns — a recent MIT study estimated that a living wage in Johnson County for a family of three was around $45,000 — Stegman maintained that access to affordable and available housing and nutrition assistance must be a critical component of any anti-poverty program. The median monthly rent for housing in Johnson County was $881 in 2011. Nearly 46 percent of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income toward rent as compared to 25 percent of homeowners.
The cost of housing is an issue that comes up frequently for Suzanne Bartling, director of outreach ministry for the Metropolitan Lutheran Ministry, in the employment and GED-assistance program that she helps run.
“Sustaining jobs are so hard to come by. Many of our guests are homeless and it’s a struggle to get even enough employment to find someplace to live,” said Bartling.
Stegman also characterized nutrition assistance as a “real challenge,” for Johnson County, noting that the county had a food insecurity rate of 11.7 percent with 22,481 residents receiving Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits in 2011. With the current Farm Bill still being debated in Congress, Stegman expressed concern about future funding levels.
“We’re in a really troubling situation when you look at a portrait of the economy and communities like Johnson County and realize there are future cuts on the path,” said Stegman.
Stegman posited that the solution to poverty must be two-fold: creating “household-sustaining jobs,” with a support system in place to maintain that employment and reducing the work expenses associated with health care, transportation and child care.
Arthur Diaz, the director of career training at Episcopal Community Services, believes that current government programs haven’t figured out how to handle those challenges.
“The barriers for our current clientele are pretty daunting. The workforce system is not equipped to handle them. This is not a problem that we solve overnight,” said Diaz.
Stegman closed by noting that the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty would fall in January of next year and that anniversary could spur a renewed national interest in addressing poverty.
“We found the public and political will to do it once. We can do it again,” said Stegman.