Today we continue with the candidates’ responses to our questionnaire for those seeking positions on the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners.
The second questionnaire item is as follows:
A recent report at a United Community Services summit revealed that poverty in Johnson County has more than doubled in the last decade. More individuals are now living in poverty in Johnson County than in Wyandotte County. What should the county be doing to confront growing poverty here?
Patricia Lightner (County Commission Chair challenger)
It is a fact that the U.S. suburbs have been experiencing a surge in their poverty levels since 2009 and even before, and Johnson County is no exception.
This poverty surge is not only happening among the working poor but also among the middle class who have lost or are still losing jobs that they have not been able to replace at pre-recession or even sustainable earnings.
Johnson County can do several things to help combat this problem and assist people in getting back on their feet:
- Encourage and incentivize businesses to expand their business and hire new employees or to locate to Johnson County by keeping property taxes low and loosening regulations. Government cannot create jobs; government needs to create a friendly business environment that will encourage economic growth and stimulate the economy.
- Keep property taxes low so as to not rock the boat with our seniors who are living on fixed incomes, and families and individuals struggling to get by during this weak economy.
- Prioritize the budget to allocate more to the agencies, services and programs that work to assist families and individuals with food, housing, medical needs, and other services. But also put measures in place that can determine the outcome basis of these dollars spent to ensure our monies are being spent effectively and efficiently and providing the most bang for our buck.
- Provide assistance in getting programs/services to individuals who need help in starting a new small business or in learning a new trade.
- Johnson County needs to ensure it is applying for and receiving all qualified federal funds available for all programs and services in this county’s efforts to assist its residents.
This prolonged recession has created challenges that even a few years ago we would not have imagined could happen here in Johnson County. However, this is an opportunity to partner with the private sector, independent agencies, non-profits and residents to all work together to help the County’s neediest overcome these difficult times and regain their lives. Johnson County is a community that cares.
Ed Peterson (County Commission Chair challenger)
Suburban poverty is a hidden problem that will require coordinated efforts from many sectors of our community. Families who find themselves in this position generally need assistance with housing, food, medical care, child care and better career options. One-third of those in poverty are children who cannot help themselves. A successful path out of poverty for these families will require comprehensive help for the whole family. To achieve holistic support for those in need, the county must coordinate its current services in the areas of housing, medical care and mental health care, and partner with other service providers.
As a front line service provider, the county is uniquely positioned to educate citizens about the issues of suburban poverty. Through public action and media, the county can help citizens understand the problems and enlist public support for efforts to address poverty. The county should be a voice for families suffering suburban poverty. The failure of current leadership to support expansion of Medicaid coverage for these residents was a lost opportunity for advocacy.
The county should develop a more robust public transportation system to expand employment opportunities.
Finally, the county should exercise leadership to bring together the various stakeholders to tackle the larger problems such as affordable child care and affordable housing. Some of these problems are regional in scope and must be addressed through regional cooperation. Through my positions with the Mid-America Regional Council, I can bring the regional perspective and experience in regional cooperation to the position of Johnson County Chairman.
Ed Eilert (County Commission Chair incumbent)
Population growth, continued fallout from the great recession and changes in skills needed to compete in today’s economy have all contributed to the rising poverty level. For some, whether by age, disability or other health reasons, the safety net provided by state government and supplemented by county programs must be continued. Johnson County operates six Multi-Service Centers across the county, centers which offer some financial assistance to qualifying families, case management and self-sufficiency programs, food pantries for short term assistance, information and referral services to other community resources, utility assistance for qualifying Johnson County households and access to Kansas City’s Medicine Cabinet which provides certain medical assistance. These programs are important but cannot change the long term dynamics of poverty. There are two areas the county can play a role, and those are in the area of education and gaining new skills and promoting job creation. Promotional programs aimed at gaining new skills through the Johnson County Community College programs and certification opportunities, can open new doors for those seeking employment. Promoting the technical study areas offered by our K-12 schools could provide those who choose not to go to college, an opportunity to have marketable skills upon graduation. Johnson County needs to encourage new business and job creation by supporting agencies like the Enterprise Center of Johnson County and partnering with and supporting our cities in bringing new businesses and new jobs to Johnson County, which will have a long term positive impact for those seeking jobs.
Laura McConwell (District 1 Commissioner candidate)
Suburban poverty is a growing trend nationwide. As a former board member of United Community Services, co-Chair of First Suburbs and Mayor of Mission, the evidence is apparent. The largest groups in poverty are children under the age of 18 and seniors over the age of 75. The 2014 Human Services Summit highlighted this concern as well as the concern that TANF block grant money is being allocated away from helping those in poverty get out of poverty in favor of other programs. It is alarming considering that 37,000 live below the poverty level and another 50,000 live just above it.
The county currently provides some basic assistance. For those in poverty, it provides safety net type resources such as assistance with a utility bill. The county’s programs are not designed to be the sole service provider.
Merely allocating more county resources is not the answer. Expanding government and/or government programs is not the answer. Instead, we as a community need to understand why poverty is growing. We need to collect available best practices and data and assemble a group of stakeholders to determine how to address the growing poverty. Those stakeholders should include citizens, businesses, faith-based communities, municipal government, county government, school district, Johnson County Community College, not-for-profit agency providers, those who have received assistance to name a few. The county can assist with communication and coordination of efforts. We want to offer a hand up to those who have temporarily fallen on hard times and avoid enlarging the system so that people come to rely on it for care.
We at all times should treat people with dignity and respect. We do not want children to have lasting scars from being treated with a stigma of poverty. Working together we can make a difference.
Mark Nauser (District 1 Commissioner candidate)
Having attended the summit, I believe we should look at where we can implement some of the things the keynote speaker, Elizabeth Kneebone from the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, shared with us. Collaboration with both other counties and the local governments within this county is vital to forming smart, consolidated solutions to problems. Working regionally allows us to benefit from others’ resources while sharing our own, while working locally will enable us to come up with solutions that work best for a particular area. To this end, we should be developing and utilizing consistent, comparable data sources that will allow us to best understand trends of poverty and how to solve them most effectively. We should be looking for and rewarding proposals that both recognize poverty as an issue that crosses county lines in the metropolitan area and allows flexibility for entities within the county.
My business background tells me that this is not a problem that can be solved by government alone. I believe the county must work to promote solutions that make use of both public and private resources. We can develop new county programs at the same time as coming up with ways to help private community organizations deliver services in the most effective way possible. I believe a goal of developing comprehensive data sources is one step we can take in this direction.
Rachel Sciolaro (District 1 Commissioner candidate)
The level of poverty is directly affected by the level of economic freedom. Big government with over regulations and taxation takes away hard-earned money from families. We live in a beautiful, growing county — a true economic engine in Kansas — thanks to the hard work and innovation of the many families and businesses who call Johnson County home. I believe that the county needs to help with public awareness of the organizations that can help families during temporary financial struggles.
The work of improving government is never easy, but it’s important for us not to default to the “the way it’s always been done.” We can continually improve the way county government serves the people of our very special community.
Ron Shaffer (District 1 Commissioner candidate)
I serve on the Board of Directors for United Community Services of Johnson County and am aware of the increase in poverty in Johnson County and of our citizens who are requiring more services. At the recent Human Services Summit, it was announced that the county is making poverty one of its top priorities and that the county has already taken steps to improve case management and access to services.
There have been many cuts in services to the needy which have been a direct result of stricter eligibility changes at the State level. These changes have raised the eligibility for families who were receiving their support through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The TANF program provides temporary hunger relief through food stamps, but recipients may also receive help with medical benefits and child care.
First, we need to educate our community to the fact that poverty does exists in Johnson County. Poverty touches all segments of our community. It affects families with small children, those with mental health disabilities, developmental disabilities, vulnerable populations and seniors. The county needs to look for ways to partner with local entities and not for profit organizations who can help us reach these vulnerable populations. Scholarship programs and job counseling, transportation and the creation of new jobs will help people connect to economic opportunities, so they can reach their goals. I support education from early childhood through high school in order to help break the circle of poverty.
Alex DiCarlo (District 1 Commissioner candidate)
We must address the problem of poverty in Johnson County head on. First, we must identify who is living in poverty and the circumstances surrounding their poverty. There is a sub-set of viable workers (called discouraged workers) not calculated in the labor force, despite having a desire to work and qualifying physically as able to work. This leaves them out of unemployment figures, so a full understanding of the circumstances surrounding individuals in poverty is required. Secondly, we must address the shortcomings of government programs that provide benefits and/or subsidies, but are not aligned properly with the goal of bringing people out of poverty. Most of our current programs lack incentives that reward production and mechanisms to discourage abuse. And finally, we must address the state of current economic conditions, namely the shrinking middle class, which I believe, if left unaddressed, will lead to much greater economic implications than any one yet realizes.
Tomorrow the candidates will respond to item three:
What is the best plan for the King Louie building the county purchased in 2011?