If poverty were a city, it would be the fifth largest in Johnson County, nestled between Lenexa and Leawood in population. The city of Poverty also would be the fastest-growing in the county, more than doubling from 2000 to 2013, according to figures compiled by United Community Services of Johnson County.
Finding Poverty is not all that hard, but the roads leading out are often tricky to navigate for the many people who would like to move. This year United Community Services will focus on the safety net needs of adults in poverty with no children at home, early childhood education and the quality of jobs as a way to speed progress down those roads.
The nonprofit, which serves as a clearinghouse on human service trends and statistics for the county, offered reasons for concern about the state of suburban poverty at its annual summit last week. Executive Director Karen Wulfkuhle’s presentation featured slide after slide showing a stubborn persistence in poverty since the recession and continuing cuts in public aid.
“During the 1990s, one in five of the metro area poor lived in non-urban counties. Today it’s one in three,” Wulfkuhle said. The federal poverty level — a statistic used to determine much human services aid — is $20,090 for a family of three, yet a single parent and two kids need $60,250 to get by in the Kansas City area, according to 2013 data from the Economic Policy Institute, she said.
Private and faith-based charities don’t have the capacity to make up the difference, said Valorie Carson, UCS community planning director. Spending by all private charities together is only about 6 percent of what the federal government spends on nutrition programs, she said.
Of special concern is the lack of services for the needy who do not have children at home, said Wulfkuhle. Almost half of the 36,000 people in Johnson County who are poor live alone or with non-relatives and have no children under 18. Of those, about 30 percent are in the 15-24 age group, a transitional period of life, she said.
“There are very few resources available to help that particular population,” she said. “It’s really a group that has been kind of overlooked and not thought about.”
The Kansas General Assistance Act, providing limited cash aid for childless adults, has been scaled back and will be eliminated this July as part of Kansas’ Hope Act. New federal and state restrictions also are in the offing for nutrition program eligibility for childless adults.
Many safety net programs are limited to people caring for children. United Community Services recommended, as part of its action plan, that local human services agencies try to find ways to extend eligibility guidelines to include adults without kids.
Ken Williams, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, told the 200 at the meeting that his agency tries to get those people into a secure environment first, so they can find the strength to work with the agency and get out of poverty.
“It’s next to impossible to have that resolve, to have that will if you’re sitting there worrying about where your next meal is coming from, if you’re worried about what couch you’re going to be able to sleep on tonight or whose home is going to welcome you for the night,” he said.
“The social safety net is supposed to protect all low-income Americans. I’m not sure how being over 65 years old or not having children under age 18 has anything to do with access to the safety net,” he said.
An average of 53 percent of Johnson Countians in poverty work part-time or part-year and another 11 percent work full-time, according to UCS figures. The non-profit recommended agencies look to their own organizations to try to make things better for employees. As far as quality jobs, UCS recommended a hard look at jobs in the human service sector for livable wages, predictable hours and benefits.
“What we know about jobs within our own sector is that they aren’t all good jobs,” she said in an interview before the meeting. “We need to start with people employed in our sector before asking other kinds of employers to make those changes.”
United Community Services also supported an early childhood campaign called “Talk, Read, Play” urging parents to speak and interact more with their babies and toddlers to close the gap the needy face in school readiness. That program is being led by the Family Conservancy in Kansas City.
County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert gave brief remarks at the opening of the meeting. He emphasized programs to develop parenting skills, self-sufficiency programs and opportunities in technical education for those who don’t pursue a four-year degree.
“The way out of poverty is a job and the ability to secure a job,” Eilert said. “I’m not talking about a minimum wage job.”