Joco 913

1 in 15 Johnson County residents lives below poverty line

The Great Recession may be over on paper, but it lives on in the homes of at least 37,000 Johnson County residents, according to the latest available U.S. Census Bureau data.

That’s the number of Johnson Countians who lived below the federal poverty line in 2014. It amounts to nearly one in 15 county residents, say officials of United Community Services of Johnson County, which regularly reviews and interprets the data.

That’s a local poverty rate of 6.5 percent, well over the pre-recession 4.2 percent rate of 2007. The federal poverty line was $19,790 for a family of three in 2014.

“This suggests lots of individuals and families are struggling with income levels that don’t meet their needs,” said Karen Wulfkuhle, executive director of UCS.

The figures also show that poverty has not improved since 2013, Wulfkuhle said. The rate that year was 5.9 percent, a difference that was not statistically significant from 2014, she said.

“Looking at individuals and families in the lowest quarter (of income level), we’re not seeing any improvement,” she said.

The national and statewide trends are similar. The U.S. poverty rate was 14.8 percent in 2014 and the Kansas rate was 13.6 percent. Most counties in the region are seeing the same kind of trend, said Wulfkuhle.

The poverty rate broken down by age doesn’t offer any bright spots, either. Every age range was higher in 2014 than before the recession.

Twelve- to 17-year-olds had the biggest increase in poverty over their rate in 2007, she said.

That year, the rate was 3.3 percent, but by 2014 it had climbed to 9.3 percent. Wulfkuhle said she doesn’t know yet why that age group increased so steeply.

Income also has been a problem for working families, even if they don’t fall below federal poverty guidelines, she said.

For instance, the median family income for a female head of household with children is $34,564. But the cost of meeting basic needs for a single parent with two children in the Kansas City area is around $60,000, Wulfkuhle said.

That means for a large number of single women, “a lot don’t have adequate income to meet their basic needs, even though they are working,” Wulfkuhle said. “All may not fall below the poverty level, but they are far below adequate income to meet their basic needs.

“It tells us there is much work to be done in this community.”

United Community Services is a nonprofit group concerned with the needs of the poor in Johnson County. The group analyzes poverty trends to help leaders make policy decisions on programs for the poor.

The numbers “reinforce what we’re learning over the years — that many of those who have incomes below the poverty level also work, but wages are not adequate to support the households,” Wulfkuhle said.

“Wages and jobs have to be a part of any conversation about addressing poverty,” she

Poverty in the suburbs has been of increasing concern to the non-profit and to county officials. At a recent poverty workshop, the nonprofit presented figures that show poverty in suburban areas is on the rise. One in three of the metro area needy live in a non-urban county, compared to one in five during the 1990s.

The Johnson County Commission has also expressed concern and has vowed to make the needs of the poor a priority this year.

To reach Roxie Hammill, send email to roxie.hammill.news@gmail.com.

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