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On January 1, 2017, the KHI News Service became part of KCUR public radio’s new initiative, the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service will continue to cover health policy news and broaden its scope to include education and politics. All stories produced by the former KHI News Service are archived here. Stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to

Agency recommends approaches to growing problem of poverty in Johnson County

By Mike Sherry, HEARTLAND HEALTH MONITOR | June 10, 2015

Johnson County social service providers should target more services to residents who don’t have children, including low-income couples and at-risk young adults, according to a nonprofit organization that supports social service agencies in the county.

At its annual Human Service Summit on Tuesday, officials with United Community Services (UCS) of Johnson County said public assistance programs such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families skew toward families with young children.

Photo by Mike Sherry/Heartland Health Monitor Michael Higgins, deputy director of outreach at the Johnson County Human Services Department, makes a point about strengthening the county safety net. Higgins spoke Tuesday at United Community Services of Johnson County’s Human Service Summit.

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“I know we would all like to see a robust safety net that offers support to individuals at every age and at any life stage,” said UCS Executive Director Karen Wulfkuhle. “But our collective influence over the federal and state policies that shape and fund the public safety net is limited. However, we can create a stronger community safety net by offering a range of assistance to not only families with children, but to transition-age youth and childless adults.”

Wulfkuhle said 42 percent of the 36,000 Johnson County residents who live below the federal poverty level are “transition-age youth,” generally defined as those age 18 to 24, and childless adults under the age of 65.

For the past four years, the annual UCS summit has spotlighted poverty in one of the most well-to-do parts of the Kansas City metropolitan area. The increasing poverty rate there is an example of what’s been termed the “suburbanization of poverty” occurring throughout the country.

According to U.S. Census data analyzed by UCS, the number of residents living in poverty in Johnson County increased by 135 percent between 2000 and 2013. UCS estimates that if the rate of growth continues at that pace, one of every eight Johnson County residents will live in poverty by the middle of the next decade.

United Community Services of Johnson County estimates that if poverty continues to grow at its current rate, one of every eight county residents will live in poverty by the middle of the next decade.

Out of the 225,000 poor residents who live in a six-county area within the Kansas City area, Wulfkuhle said, a third live in what can be considered suburban counties: Cass, Clay and Platte in Missouri and Johnson in Kansas.

In addition to calling for strengthening the safety net, UCS recommended that social service providers:

  • Lead the way for other sectors by making every one of their jobs a “good job,” as defined by factors such as predictable hours and opportunities for raises.
  • Promote the “Talk, Read, Play” education campaign to employees, clients and stakeholders. The campaign is a national initiative by The Family Conservancy.

Other conference attendees recommended strengthening the safety net by helping inmates transition back into the community after their release from prison and providing underserved populations with in-home mental health services.

One organization represented at the summit, Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, focuses on serving homeless men and other populations without children.

“These folks need to be stable before we can move them into self-sufficiency programs,” the organization’s president and CEO, Ken Williams, told the conference’s approximately 200 attendees. “They need to be healthy. They need to be physically healthy. They need to be mentally healthy. They need to be clothed, fed and properly housed to begin that long trek toward self-sufficiency.”

UCS is coordinating its anti-poverty effort with Johnson County’s government, which in a plan adopted last year made it a priority to undertake “strategic approaches to improving the lives of vulnerable populations by addressing emerging poverty and crime through job creation.”

Assistant County Manager Maury Thompson, who heads the effort, said eradicating poverty is an unreachable goal.

“But in partnership with UCS,” he said, “we do believe there are ways that we can address and mitigate the effects of poverty in this county, in this community, and hopefully begin to decrease that rate.”