The Hidden Poor in Johnson County, Kansas

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. – Tucked away here in one of the most affluent neighborhoods of the state’s most affluent county is a food pantry serving a growing number of needy people.

It sits just a nine-iron away from the Starbuck’s at 151st Street and Metcalf Avenue, in back of the administrative complex of the Blue Valley School District.

On a recent sunny afternoon, three volunteers sorted through canned goods. Certified clients of the Blue Valley Multi-Service Center, which is operated by Johnson County’s Human Services department, can come by to pick up the free food items any weekday.

Those requests have come at a quickened pace during the current economic downtown, said Julie Marshall, the center’s community social services manager.

And while they might live in one of the large, newer homes that characterize the Blue Valley area, Marshall said, her clients “have been out of work for a long time, or maybe they are doing part-time work, but not enough to pay their bills.”

The new, suburban poor are different than the urban poor, say those who have studied the problem and the social-service workers who deal with them.

“They are embarrassed to ask for help and they don’t know where to begin,” said Deborah Collins, director of Johnson County’s Human Services and Aging department. “We are seeing more first-time customers than ever before.”

Statistics bear her out. According to a report issued in October by United Community Services, a 44-year-old non-profit entity that works with Kansas City area governments and others to address human-service needs, the poverty rate in Johnson County jumped from 4.4 percent in 2008 to 7.1 percent in 2009.

That was the largest year-to-year increase among all six metro-area counties.
And while adjoining Wyandotte County had a higher percentage of citizens living in poverty (21.7 percent) the total number of poor people is larger in Johnson County than in Wyandotte, said UCS Executive Director Karen Wulfkuhle.

“A lot of people want to question the data,” which come from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, said Wulfkuhle. “The data are difficult for the average person in Johnson County to accept.”

That, in turn, can lead to shame and depression for those affected by economic forces beyond their control.

“Last year, we did a focus group with teachers, school psychologists and social workers in all the districts, and they stressed that the stigma of being poor in Johnson County is an issue, particularly to school kids,” Wulfkuhle said. “They don’t want other people to know, and families will go to any extreme to prevent that.

“When I share these numbers with people, they are incredulous. And yet before the program, someone will come up to me and share that their nephew, who is out of work, is living in their basement. … Our impression of who is poor is shaped by stereotypes. When you think of homeless people, you get a certain image; it’s not necessarily the son-in-law living in the basement.”

Collins’ agency gets some county funding, but the demand for its services – help with utility bills, rent and food – comes at a time when governments themselves are strapped for cash for the very same underlying economic reasons.

“The need is skyrocketing in inverse relationship to county revenues, which are dwindling,” Collins said. “When property values go down, the county takes in less money in taxes, and our budgets are down. We are trying to use the resources we have as wisely as possible. We’ve cross-trained everybody. … But the truth is we are robbing Peter to pay Paul and some other things are getting left behind.”

One program that has not seen much of an uptick during the recession is the hot lunch offered by the county at nine neighborhood senior centers, including Blue Valley.

“People think it’s a soup kitchen, and it’s not,” said Rita Halvordson, who runs the senior-nutrition program at the Matt Ross Community Center in the older, northern part of Overland Park. “They’re not in poverty, ghetto areas. They’re in Overland Park and Roeland Park. I don’t understand why churches and other groups don’t promote it more. It’s a hidden asset.”

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