Kansas Bleeds the Middle Class

AP Images/Don Ryan


Kansas City is a little bit plainsy, and a little bit Southern, straddling the Missouri-Kansas border. It is an old city, especially compared to others west of the Mississippi, fueled in its early years by farming money and trade from settlers heading west. Kansas City proper is on the Missouri side, and Kansas City, Kansas, or KCK, sits like a stepchild on the other side, absorbing most of the urban core’s poverty and crime. The cities themselves have some of the fastest-growing poverty rates in the country, but in the suburbs, the number of low-income families has more than doubled since before the Great Recession.

Suburban poverty has been exploding for a decade, and that growth accelerated so much during the Great Recession that the Brookings Institution devoted a special research project to the trend, and released their report a few weeks ago. It has continued to grow: Overall, poverty in suburbs rose by 64 percent, increasing at a rate that was twice as fast as the growth in cities. In some suburbs, like the communities surrounding Kansas City, Brookings found that the number of poor increased by 97 percent. According to the Mid-America Regional Council, a research group in Kansas City, that’s only because Brookings counted KCK as a suburb; since local people consider it a city where poverty was already high, taking it out of the equation means that suburban poverty rose even faster, by 134 percent.

In many cases the number of families living in or near poverty in suburbs outnumber those in urban centers. That is true for the Kansas suburbs in Johnson County, where I spoke with Karen Wulfkuhle, Executive Director of United Community Services of Johnson County. When Wulfkuhle crunched the numbers, she found 103,000 families living below 200 percent of the family poverty line, a number that captures the poor and near-poor. In Johnson County, that means a family of four is making less than $47,000. “When we give presentations or talk to groups about growing poverty, it’s a surprise to them that these numbers are growing, and yet every day they’re interacting with people that are working low-wage jobs, whether it’s at the dry-cleaners or at the gas station, at the grocery store,” she says. “Sometimes people want to argue with you about the data. They just don’t want to believe it.”

In counties like these, families are living, mostly hidden, and are struggling to cover basic costs like housing, transportation, and childcare. Living in poverty anywhere is a challenge, but what advocates worry about in suburban areas is that the safety net services that are easy to find in urban downtowns are spread out by suburban sprawl. Families struggle to afford cars and gas in places where buses are few and inconvenient. Their costs are greater, because they’re surrounded by wealthier people. For the Brookings researchers, Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube, a big problem is that the anti-poverty programs in place were designed when poverty was concentrated in isolated communities—they weren’t meant to stretch across ones with diverse needs.

When I went to Johnson County, it seemed like any other suburb. I spent much of the fall and winter reporting on homeless families living in the suburbs west of Denver and Johnson County is much the same, with rundown strip malls, Sam’s Clubs, communities of ranch houses built in the 1960s or 1970s next to sub-divisions filled with McMansions, old money, and country clubs. Fast-casual restaurants line the boulevards. In place of Chipotles, there were Sonics. In place of the Rockies, there was earth that lay flat and endless.

Why had Kansas City’s suburban poverty grown so much faster than the national average? The best answer was that it might have been suburbanizing slightly faster, especially on the Kansas side. Kansas City’s inner-city schools were struggling—they’d lost their accreditation in 2012 for poor test scores, and are currently working to regain it—but in Johnson County, the schools were top in the state. More important, the sprawling suburban county, the wealthiest in the state, was growing jobs. “I mean, look around: it’s like hotel, restaurant, restaurant, retail, retail, retail,” says Jason Wesco, who runs Health Partnership Clinic, the local community health center that serves the poor. “If you know anything about anything, you know that people go where there are jobs and they go where there are good schools, and we got both.” That helped draw a new population of working poor to the area, who were filling low-wage jobs in the service and retail sectors.

That doesn’t explain the entire shift, however. The president and chief executive officer for Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, Jan Lewis, and Kirsten Flanagan, its director of institutional funding, said they’d dealt with a new population of poor families. The adults had good jobs, many for companies like Sprint, headquartered there, which laid off 9,000 workers during the downturn in 2007 and 2008, or worked in construction or real estate during the housing boom. Many in that population were educated with a good employment history, so they didn’t apply for the first jobs that came up at Panera or Crate & Barrel. Instead, they tried to hold out for better jobs, and found themselves spending their savings to maintain a sense of normalcy, certain that a good opportunity would be around the corner. “They had 401k’s, and maybe their company gave them a severance package and then got them set up with a placement agency, but there were no jobs,” Lewis says. “They’re overqualified for so many, and when you want a job you don’t want to hear that.”

By the time families went to social service agencies or charities to seek help, they were frustrated. In some cases, they’d even sold all of their furniture. Deborah Collins, the director of human services for Johnson County, told me about one woman who had sold all of her furniture but was still driving the Lexus she’d had in better times. When her caseworker told her it was time to sell the Lexus, she burst into tears because it was the last possession her family had. (In Kansas, families would have to spend down their assets to qualify for programs like welfare and food stamps—families can have no more than $2,000, which disqualifies many with reasonably new vehicles. The New America Foundation in Washington D.C. researches policies on asset limits, and says that Kansas is one of ten states that has kept its asset limits that low, which is half of what the foundation estimates families should be able to have to weather unexpected expenses.  In general, they find that these requirements discourage families from saving money and ultimately means low-income families rely on public assistances longer than they would if they were more freely able to build wealth.) For the most part, families who were wealthy enough to have owned Lexuses were rare; most had been working-class or were already struggling when the bottom fell out on the economy.

In addition, of course, these organizations are receiving less money from state and federal grants. For the Johnson County people I spoke with—those working most closely with poor families, trying to help them navigate the human services departments, running Head Start programs, and providing them with health care—it means they’re struggling to meet a rising need. Wesco’s clinic services 9,000 patients a year, which is fewer than 10 percent of the target population.

Head Start of Shawnee Mission in Johnson County has maintained a wait list since 2005 of about 300 children; before that, it never had to keep one. On top of that, the school will have to cut slots for eight children next year thanks to the sequester and already cut five in January, says Terrie VanZandt-Travis, who runs the program.

As part of its mission, Head Start works with families and helps parents apply for jobs, find health care, and other services. When they meet with families in the beginning of their contact with them, they try to assess the families’ needs and goals. Before the Recession, she says, “People were writing goals like, ‘I want to buy a house.’ That dream went completely away; I don’t see that at all any more. The need primarily shifted to, ‘How do I get the skills, how do I get to school to get a job where I’m not in poverty.’” The problem is that the solutions do not materialize quickly. Travis says she works with a lot of single mothers who go back to school to become nurses, but others are studying early childhood education, which is not a well-paying career path. If people are working, they’re in the low-wage service sector and there is nowhere for them to move up. “We’ve found in Johnson County there are not a whole lot of places to go in terms of the next step,” Travis says.

The problem is, almost no jobs pay well, especially in the fields that are growing in areas like Johnson County. “The basic point is that we’re a low wage country,” Peter Edelman, the Georgetown law school professor and poverty expert, said when I spoke to him. “People ought to make more money from working.”

It is a sentiment I’ve heard over and over, from experts and from people who live in communities with a rising population of poor families. I asked Wesco what the legacy would be, if this were a country where work continued to fail to pull people out of poverty, and he pointed to a sheet detailing the top problems people were coming into the clinic to be treated for. “The health implications I would say are pretty clear,” he said. “You’re going to be hypertensive, you’re going to have diabetes, you’re going to be depressed.” Wesco says his clinic would have to triple in size to meet the rising need, an impossible growth that, even if it were accomplished in a year or two, would be far behind the rise in need. And in Kansas, where adults on their own can only qualify for Medicaid if their incomes are below 38 percent of the poverty line, the health care problems of the poorest of the poor aren’t likely to be resolved by the coming changes under the Affordable Care Act. The federal subsidies only help households between 100 percent and 400 percent of the poverty line buy insurance, which means a family of four making between $23,550 and $94,200 annually, and states that are refusing to expand Medicaid as much as the law permits will likely still have a huge untreated population.

When I asked Lewis what the implications are for America becoming a low-wage country, she turned the question inward. “I’ve said all along that we need to tell the American consumer to stop demanding the lowest price always and stop demanding the highest return on their investment dollar,” she says. “If not, we are going to continue to see all these non-living-wage jobs.”

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