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Johnson County Demonstrates Sharp Uptick In Suburban Poverty

Poverty in suburban Johnson County doesn't look like it does in urban Kansas City, Kan., or rural parts of the state. 

And that makes it harder to address a growing problem in a part of the metro seen as affluent, says County Manager HannesZacharias.

"Individual families will maintain appearances to the point they're still living in their two-story house, still have a nice car in the garage, but you go inside, there's no food, there's no clothing, there's no furniture," says Zacharias, who spoke Tuesday at a summit to address suburban poverty. "It's really a stigma to be viewed as impoverished."

About 6.8 percent of Johnson County residents live in poverty – a rate that's lower than the metro as a whole, but growing quickly. That's up, compared with 4.4 percent in 2008.

Zacharias says people are always surprised to learn there are more low-income residents in Johnson County than Wyandotte County, though they make up a smaller percent of the population. That's why human services organizations in the area organize an annual conference to talk about how to better tackle the problem.

Part of the issue, says Zacharias, is the suburban poor aren't who you might think. They're not recent immigrants or transplants from other parts of the metro area. They're people who lose their jobs and aren't able to find suitable employment at the same wages.

They're also low-wage workers who make up a vital part of Johnson County's economy.

"It's people that you see every day in the grocery store waiting on you or working at the gas station or in fast food service," says Karen Wulfkuhle, executive director of United Community Services of Johnson County and one of the conference organizers. "They're a part of our community, but the wages that they earn or their ability to work is limited."

Wulfkuhle says Johnson County suffers from a lack of affordable housing. That means many are trying to commute from other communities in a metro area not known for reliable public transit.

Zacharias says the annual summit helps connect the service organizations providing the safety net in Johnson County. But the number of groups helping isn't growing as fast as the number of people needing help.

"There are not going to be a lot more resources coming to the table," he says. "We've got to use the resources we have in more effective and deliberative ways."

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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