Panel addresses rising poverty in Johnson County
Poverty rate has risen faster than other area counties, as has number of poor children in Shawnee Mission school district
Johnson County acutely reflects an alarming nationwide trend — poverty in the suburbs is on the rise.
There are 38,000 Johnson Countians and counting whose income falls below the federal poverty level — about $18,000 a year for a family of three. The Shawnee Mission school district has one of the county’s highest percentages of students who need free or reduced-price lunches.
A panel of experts took on the subject during “Understanding and Responding to Poverty Among Children and Their Families in Johnson County,” a community engagement and issues program Tuesday night at the Johnson County Central Resource Library.
Panelists included representatives from educational institutions and state agencies. The event also afforded members of the public a chance to ask questions and offer ideas about how to improve the problem.
According to 2009 statistics, the most recent available, from United Community Services of Johnson County, Johnson County has the second-highest number of impoverished people than any county in Kansas or the Kansas City metropolitan area, said UCS executive director Karen Wulfkuhle. Only Sedgwick County, in Kansas, and Jackson County, just over the state line in Missouri, are higher.
In the six-county metro area, 11.7 percent of people live in poverty.
While Johnson County’s poverty rate — 7.1 percent of residents — is still lower than many neighboring counties, it has risen 150 percent in the past five years.
“Poverty is growing in suburbs across the country,” Wulfkuhle said, noting that numbers would probably be even higher if data included the entire recession.
One of the most troubling facts, Wulfkuhle said, is that half of Johnson County’s poor are children.
For residents younger than 18, the poverty rate was 10.1 percent in 2009 — double the 2008 rate.
Countywide, 23 percent of children participate in their school district’s free and reduced lunch program, reserved for families whose income is 135 percent or 185 percent, respectively, of the federal poverty level.
The Shawnee Mission and Gardner-Edgerton school districts have the highest percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch — roughly 33 percent, according to a UCS chart. Less than 10 years ago, Shawnee Mission’s percentage was less than 15 percent.
The De Soto district has the county’s second-lowest percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch, about 15 percent. Only Blue Valley is lower, with less than 1 percent.
Panelists Terrie VanZandt-Travis, executive director for Head Start of Shawnee Mission Inc., and Pat All, former Olathe school district superintendent, said getting an education helps youth find gainful employment and escape poverty.
Early childhood programs not only help children learn the basics before kindergarten, they also help connect families with other resources, such as food assistance and healthcare programs, they said. Schools can help impoverished children succeed by keeping curriculum consistent and building personal relationships despite interruptions in their home lives.
“There’s a high correlation of poverty with lack of achievement,” All said. “It’s because of one thing after another that interferes with the complex process of learning.”
Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, discussed some programs and policies that are in place to help families save money and improve their situations.
Attendees’ ideas for improving poverty were primarily grassroots in nature — watch out for your neighbors, donate to your church’s food pantry and urge businesses to support organizations that help impoverished residents.
Panelist Lori Alvarado made no bones about it, Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services programs alone are not going to lift people out of poverty.
Alvarado, SRS regional director for the Kansas City metropolitan area, said department caseloads have increased 40 percent in the last two years. And they focus on immediate basic needs — which are often dire.
She said poverty has a cumulative nature, and that doesn’t help people escape it.
“Some of these folks are working really hard just to get food in the stomachs of kids who are trying to learn,” Alvarado said. “You just see this snowball effect.”
SRS helps clients for up to five years, which may seem like a lot but really isn’t when you look at obstacles like increasing earning power and escaping debt, Alvarado said.
“When we’re talking about a poverty situation,” she said, “it takes a long time to dig out.”