In the late 1990s, Johnny Waller made a serious mistake: He was caught with illegal drugs. He was charged with intent to sell the drugs, pleaded guilty and went to prison.
Today, Waller is 40 years old, has two children and lives in Kansas City. He’s studying for an MBA. He was pardoned for his crime, but he’s still paying for that long-ago error in judgment.
Waller says he’s applied for 175 jobs over the years. On those applications, when asked, he has checked the box admitting his prior conviction.
A few employers looked past his teenaged mistake. Most did not. “It’s when I have to check that box that problems arise,” he said.
Waller, and others like him, want the Kansas City Council to pass a so-called “ban the box” ordinance that would bar most private employers from asking about criminal history before a job interview. The full council may vote on the proposal Thursday.
The ordinance doesn’t require employers to hire applicants with criminal records. It simply gets those applicants in the door. Employers could still conduct background checks on applicants and could decline to hire anyone with a past.
The ordinance is also designed to make it easier for those with a criminal history to rent an apartment or home.
Supporters of the measure says this is one step in a long effort to break the cycle of poverty in Kansas City. It is that.
But it isn’t enough. Employment is just one piece of the complicated but essential fight against poverty in Kansas City.
Just last week the area received a sobering reminder that its rental housing policies may be leading to evictions and homelessness. Wages are still largely stuck. Attempts to raise the minimum wage have hit roadblocks.
Fixing these inter-connected challenges won’t be possible overnight. Yet it’s increasingly clear the 2019 Kansas City mayor’s race must include, at its center, a debate about improving the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
That doesn’t necessarily mean 20-point anti-poverty platforms, or meaningless East Side news conferences, or more sales tax money. It means mayoral candidates’ first priority must be providing a framework for quality-of-life improvements in poor neighborhoods.
How can city incentives be used to improve housing options? Should rental housing be subject to inspection and penalties? Can wages be increased? Can earnings taxes be reduced for low-wage earners (and raised for wealthier Kansas Citians)?
Police deployment must be an issue. Bus service. A reasonable effort on the minimum wage. Sidewalks and intersections. Neighborhood schools. Technology training.
And most importantly, these policy initiatives and others must be linked and sharply focused.
Last week, a prominent Kansas Citian told me he’s looking for 2019 mayoral candidates with vision and an overall theory of how to make neighborhood lives better.
That seems exactly right. Kansas City is doing lots of things well, but the city’s leadership often lurches from issue to issue — the airport, a convention hotel, ban the box — without a full understanding of how each decision can be a part of a broader effort against decline.
In that sense, the often-heard complaint — “You fixed downtown, now do something for neighborhoods” — misses the point. Kansas City must have healthy neighborhoods and a vibrant downtown. Its next mayor must offer a strategy to do both.
Saying it is easier than doing it, of course. But Kansas Citians seem ready to support a series of initiatives to address poverty and decline across the community.
Banning the box is a start. But it isn’t the end. Kansas Citians can’t rest until their community is safer, healthier and richer in every way. The next mayor must explain how he or she will get there.