Poverty has come to Johnson County. In the Kansas City metro only Jackson County has more people living below the poverty line. The number of poor in Johnson County has more than doubled in a decade.
Those were some of the startling facts presented at the Human Service Summit 2014 hosted by United Community Services of Johnson County Tuesday. Elizabeth Kneebone, who has studied suburban poverty across the country for Brookings, told the group the county’s poor population grew by 144 between 2000 and 2012. Growing poverty in suburbia is a national phenomenon. The suburban poor grew in 93 of 95 metros. This is the fourth year the summit has focused on poverty, UCS Executive Director Karen Wulfkuhle said.
Johnson County now has 37,500 people with incomes below 100 percent of the federal poverty level – one in 15 county residents. Two-thirds of the working age poor had jobs and one-third of the poor are children under 18. Of those 25 or older, 31 percent are college graduates. More than 40 percent are in deep poverty: incomes below 50 percent of the federal poverty level.
In Johnson County the poor are concentrated in certain areas. While the poor are more diverse, younger and more educated than at the start of the last decade, in Johnson County more of the poor are white and are working, Kneebone said. Schools are seeing more students qualify for free and reduced lunch – closing in on 40 percent in Shawnee Mission.
“We are 50 years on from the war on poverty,” Kneebone said, poverty looks different than it did 50 years ago. Population growth, movement of jobs out of the core cities, and the subprime lending crisis affected suburban poverty, but it was not a product of the recession, Kneebone said. The shift began in the 1980s. While poverty has exploded in suburbs across the nation, the suburban safety net can be thinner. Anti-poverty programs have been focused on urban areas for decades and the suburban infrastructure to deal with poverty is not up to scale, she said. The lack of transit means it is harder to get to jobs. Federal funding is spread across 81 programs and 10 agencies, complicating the relief system.
“It is a human moral issue,” Johnson County Manager Hannes Zacharias said of the challenge facing the county. “No one is going to save us but ourselves.” The next economy is based on human capital. Poverty does not know city boundaries, he said, it knows corridors.
Zacharias noted that bus services have been reduced while development is moving farther out in the county. “We have a community discussion that has to occur,” he said. Jobs was another focus of his response. “How do we train individuals to get a better job,” he asked.