For eight years, Fred Fosnacht has kept a sharp eye on America’s bright and bleak economic times.
By ERIC ADLER
The Kansas City Star
The leader of a job club held each Wednesday at Olathe’s Prince of Peace Catholic Church, he remembers the handful of unemployed job searchers who came to the club in the heady days before the Great Recession of 2008. He can’t forget the dozens of shocked, laid-off workers who, for years afterward, packed the room.
“There were days when we used to have 70 to 100 people in here,” Fosnacht said Wednesday before his club’s 7 a.m. start.
Now, 15 people or fewer typically show.
“Times are definitely getting better,” he said, “but it’s very mixed. The outlook is very contingent on where you stand. If you’re standing in the wrong spot, it doesn’t look so good.”
Data released this morning by the U.S. Census prove the point.
The latest American Community Survey report — which gathers social, housing and economic data on areas with populations of 65,000 or more — shows that while times remain harsh for the great mass of people in Kansas, Missouri and the Kansas City area, improvements were seen on some measures for some groups between 2011 and 2012.
Economists and other experts differ on exactly how to interpret the numbers, with analogies ranging from flood waters cresting, to small patches of blue after a long dark storm, to just more of the same gloomy economic rain.
Frank Lenk, director of research services for the Mid-America Regional Council, said the local data seemed to be mixed.
“That’s often an indication of a turning point,” he said. “Some people turn earlier, some people turn later. It looks like there might be more people who are still really hurting than are doing better. Hopefully, as the economy continues to improve, more people will do better.”
Today’s numbers speak to both realities:
• In Missouri, Kansas and the Kansas City area, the percentage of people in poverty still remains massive and significantly higher than in 2008, the first year of the recession.
In Johnson County, nearly 7 percent of the population now lives in poverty. That’s close to 38,000 people, more even than in less-populated Wyandotte County, although its poverty rate is around 24 percent.
Still, from 2011 to 2012, the rates of poverty either slowed or stalled, or actually dropped in a few select areas that include Kansas City, Kan., Lee’s Summit, and Platte and Cass counties.
• The same holds for health insurance. A greater percentage of people lack health insurance now than in 2008, but more people in 2012 had insurance than in 2011.
• Median household incomes in every major part of the metro area have dropped drastically since 2008.
But between 2011 and 2012 in Kansas, median household income stalled its decline to about $50,000, down from $53,000 four years prior. In Johnson County, it rose from $71,000 in 2011 to more than $73,000 in 2012. (It was more than $81,000 in 2008.) Independence, Lee’s Summit and Platte County also saw increases.
Kevin Nielsen, 39, sees himself as fortunate.
A year ago this month, the Overland Park father of three landed his current job as a senior manager of products and services at Kansas City Power & Light after he and his group of five co-workers were cut from Sprint in March 2012.
“I’d been with Sprint for 15 years,” said Nielsen, who didn’t panic.
He had six months’ severance.
“The economy in early 2012 was already better than in ’10 and ’11, so I wasn’t as worried,” he said. “I never really felt despair.”
He nonetheless embarked on a concentrated job search, tapping a network of friends and contacts, talking to employers in Kansas City, Denver and Seattle.
“The way I dissected it is I have six months of severance. The first three months, let’s see if I can better myself,” he said, attempting to find a job better than his former position.
“I thought if I get to the Fourth of July and I don’t have anything, let’s go get a job. I don’t care if I’m making the same money or a little less.”
Nielsen knew no one at KCP&L, but the job came while he was considering two others.
“As it turned out, the job I got here couldn’t be better,” he said.
If a turnaround is coming, those who run the region’s social service agencies said they are not seeing it.
“We do know it’s been getting worse. The number of people in poverty has been growing,” said Elaine West, executive director of the Missouri Association for Community Action in Jefferson City, which advocates for the poor. “In Missouri we have close to 800,000 who are uninsured. It’s a huge number.”
Peter J. Eaton, an economist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is far from hopeful.
“I don’t really see any reason for optimism as long as our jobs picture doesn’t look better,” he said, giving little credence to improving unemployment numbers.
In June, unemployment on the Kansas side of metropolitan area was 5.7 percent, down from highs of 8 percent in 2010. On the Missouri side, it’s dropped from 10 percent in the depths of the recession to 7.3 percent in June.
“The unemployment rate may go down, but that doesn’t mean anything,” Eaton said. “If you’re no longer out looking for work, you’re not counted.”
More important, he said, is whether new jobs can return people to salaries similar to past earnings.
“If all the jobs that are out there are flipping burgers, that doesn’t get you very far,” he said.
When John Minter of Olathe was asked if he thinks the economy is in recovery, he answered quickly.
“Lord, no,” he said. “It’s been hard.”
At 60, Minter had worked as an insurance adjuster for most of his adult life until a layoff left him unemployed in early 2007.
Since then, he’s been hired three times as either a full-time or contract worker, once for more than two years, until cuts hit.
He spends his days job hunting.
Kathy Newallis, 50, also of Olathe, began looking for work in May — again.
“This is my second round,” she said.
Married, with a 24-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, Newallis has held three jobs in her adult life that included 13 years at Honeywell, where she was account manager until a layoff in 2010.
Within five months, she found another job at a shipping company. It paid less.
“But I was thrilled to have it,” she said, until that company also downsized in July 2012, offering Newallis an ill-suited sales job making $10,000 less.
Certainly, she knows people are getting jobs. But she wonders about what kind. While unemployed, she heard of a job paying $11 to $13 an hour.
She sees older workers, not teenagers, at fast food restaurants now. She debates whether working at the wage would be worth the cost of after-school care for her 8-year-old.
Her husband makes a decent salary, but her income is necessary. She’ll be 60 when her son starts off for college.
“I don’t work just for fun,” Newallis said, “and I don’t really want to be poor.”
Newallis said she often hears news of an improving economic climate.
“I’m like, ‘Where?’”
Median household income
The U.S. Census on Thursday released income numbers for states, counties and cities with populations over 65,000.
|Kansas City, Kan.||NA||37,794||35,876|
Source: U.S. Census
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