Confronting Suburban Poverty in Johnson County, Kansas

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  • July 03, 2014

Elizabeth Kneebone

Three years ago, I was invited to Johnson County, Kansas to speak at the county’s annual Human Services Summit about growing poverty in the Kansas City region’s suburbs. Earlier this month, United Community Services of Johnson County (UCS)—the event’s organizer—invited me back to revisit the topic at this year’s summit. I was immediately struck by how much the conversation has evolved in the region in recent years.

In 2011, the focus of the summit was primarily on exploring and understanding the drivers and implications of the rapidly rising low-income population in what has traditionally been the Kansas City region’s most affluent suburban county. This year’s summit, while grounded in those trends, centered on finding solutions that more effectively address today’s need. (See the presentation below.)

In his remark at this year’s event, Johnson County Manager Hannes Zacharias announced that the county was making poverty its top priority. The county has already taken steps to better integrate its data systems to improve case management and access to services across agencies and programs. And it is working on how to further expand that kind of collaborative information sharing to include nonprofits operating in the county, while respecting privacy concerns and HIPPA regulations. Following the summit, county agency staff joined the County Manager and UCS staff to talk about practical next steps to build on that progress and to implement some of the lessons learned from the innovative models and strategies discussed during the event.

In the afternoon, UCS, Mid America Regional Council (MARC), and the Truman Heartland Community Foundation convened a conversation similar to the Human Services Summit on the region’s East side in Independence, Missouri. The evolution of these discussions in different parts of the metro area underscore how regional the challenges of poverty are today, and how efforts to increase access to economic opportunity for low-income residents and communities will ultimately need to be regional as well. Lagging perceptions of where poverty is located and who it affects in the region still pose challenges for Kansas City suburbs grappling with growing need. But with strong “quarterbacks” at the county level (like UCS and the executive team in Johnson County and the Truman Heartland Community Foundation in Jackson County) and at the regional level (MARC), the Kansas City metro area has the opportunity to craft the kinds of crosscutting and collaborative approaches necessary to more effectively connect residents to economic opportunity region-wide.

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