OVERLAND PARK, Kan. – Churches could take a novel approach to fighting poverty in Johnson County, if they were to embrace an idea floated at a human service summit held here Tuesday.
The idea was to have church officials establish “story banks,” or collections of stories told by poor people so that those who are better off could better understand their circumstances and aspirations of those living in poverty.
“Hearing those stories and helping people understand that people who are poor want the same things they do may help change some of the policy discussion that goes on around poverty,” said Karen Wulfkuhle, executive director of the organization.
The idea was one of several that emerged from group discussions at the 12th annual summit, which was organized by United Community Services of Johnson County (UCS), a planning and research organization based in Lenexa.
The gathering was at the Ritz Charles event center and drew about 175 people.
Other suggestions included broadening efforts to tie corporate tax incentives to the creation of living-wage jobs and holding more events like the summit where people could meet and brainstorm ideas.
For instance, reference librarian Emily Walters and Trent Howerton, who is with a workforce development organization, said they discussed ways they could work together to help job seekers.
Wulfkuhle said this year’s summit built on themes from the past couple of years, which focused on the ability of the safety net to help the suburban poor. UCS focused this year on what the broader community can do to help fight poverty.
The group discussions followed a keynote speech by Erik Stegman, manager of the Half in Ten Campaign organized out of Washington, D.C. The campaign’s goal is to cut poverty in half in the U.S. over a decade starting in 2011.
The goal is achievable, he said, because the country halved the poverty rate to 12.1 percent in the 1960s with the War on Poverty programs.
“So we know we can do it,” he said, “and we can do it again.”
President Lyndon Johnson signed the Medicare and Medicaid programs into law in July 1965 in Independence, Mo., with former president Harry Truman looking on. Stegman said frustration with economic injustice also was a driving force in the movement that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
According to the Half in Ten Campaign, the U.S. poverty rate was 15 percent in 2011. Campaign officials said that meant that 46.2 million Americans were living below the federal poverty level of $23,018 a year income for a family of four.
Data presented at the summit showed the poverty rate in Johnson County was 6.6 percent in 2011 out of a total a population of 552,991 people.
According to census data Stegman presented for Johnson County, median income dropped by about 12.6 percent between 2008 and 2011.
He said that though the median income was nearly $70,000 in the county, roughly a third of all the jobs in the county paid annual wages of less than $30,000 two years ago.
National census figures, he said, indicated that out-of-pocket medical expenses were by far the largest single factor pushing people into poverty in 2011, affecting roughly 10.6 million people.
The Half in Ten Campaign has two central tenets, according to Stegman:
- To rebuild an economy with full-employment opportunities and living wages
- To support sound and proven policies that keep families on their feet when the economy fails them
He said rising income inequality indicated the failure of the current economy.
“When we are talking about that first prong that fixed poverty before,” Stegman said, “it was the full-employment, equal-access economy, and that’s what we are still missing right now.”
Citing statistics from the Kansas Department of Labor, he said that seven of the top 10 jobs expected to have the greatest growth in the county through 2018 had median wages under $30,000 a year.
The service sector is among the fastest growing segment for job creation, he said.
As the Great Society programs and events, such as the August 1963 March on Washington, begin marking their 50-year anniversaries, Stegman said, the expected publicity presents an opportunity for anti-poverty advocates to get the word out about changes that need to occur.
The Half in Ten Campaign has already gathered some stories from individuals and posted them on its website broken down by state, including some in Kansas and Missouri.
“We want to be there to really tell the story about the people we really work with,” he said, “and I think this anniversary coming up is going to be a really important time to let low-income people speak for themselves.”