LAWRENCE — Johnson County has the largest population and the highest median income in Kansas. The average income is 50 percent greater than the U.S. as a whole. The population is 81 percent white.
And yet poverty remains a stubborn and growing problem, with 5.3 percent of Johnson Countians in the last census falling into that category and an additional 60,000 people with incomes between 100 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level – not enough to regularly and sustainably meet basic needs. It is the latter group that the county’s premier community planning agency, United Community Services, asked a University of Kansas researcher to examine as part of its Employment Planning Project.
Angela Gist, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies, conducted the study for the project, funded by a grant from the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund. She presented an executive summary of her findings to UCS in March.
“Johnson County’s reputation is that the streets are paved with gold,” Gist said. “But the near-homeless need support. Research says that in affluent areas, people tend to ignore those populations. UCS is working on a strategic-planning process to create more sustainable households for low-income families. My job was to hold five focus groups and see what barriers they face and how they interact to prevent upward mobility.”
Gist worked with the county’s Department of Corrections and various social-service agencies to create focus groups. Graduate students helped analyze the resulting data.
“It’s relatively easy to fix one problem like transportation by providing a bus voucher or a gas card,” Gist said. “But it’s rarely just one issue. It’s also child care, education, health. It becomes almost impossible to escape. So a layoff turns into a snowball. One example was a lady who lost her job as a bank teller. Her husband is disabled. They had adopted their granddaughter. Her car broke down. She had Type 2 diabetes and became hospitalized. The bills caused her credit rating to go down.”
Gist’s study made a number of recommendations, including:
- Low-income workers need support for at least two years to allow them to stabilize their lives.
- Support services must be individualized and “holistically integrated.” Eligibility for services must be flexible and “driven by … dignity and compassion.”
- Support services need to simultaneously provide both tangible (i.e., financial, shelter, food, etc.), and psychological help. Participants need help understanding and learning healthy options for coping with stress, depression, challenges to self-esteem and self-efficacy.
- Support services need to be provided at times and in formats that are flexible.
- Once temporary stability is achieved, personal and professional mentoring is needed and desired.
- Better quality and better distribution of information are needed.
The report’s conclusion states, “Low-income individuals deserve to be invested in and supported. A common theme throughout the focus groups was the strong desire for stability and their willingness to work hard for it.”
Kathryn Evans Madden, UCS’s poverty project manager, said Gist’s research would be helpful as her group seeks to implement strategies to help low-income residents.
“Dr. Gist’s work will be very important in helping us hammer out … strategic solutions specific to Johnson County,” Evans Madden said. “We have pulled together a working team involving folks from business, higher education and government to help shape a strategic direction for the community. It was important to make sure we heard from Johnson Countians who are experiencing challenges and who want better-paying jobs.”
Evans Maddens said Gist’s research clearly showed that additional job training and education opportunities are needed to help people find “household-sustaining employment.”
The data, she said, showed low-income residents face a myriad of barriers to attaining or maintaining good jobs.
“We can’t solve every single social problem,” Evans Madden said, “but we need to think about how those factors play into being successful in a job and how those limiting factors might be mitigated.”
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