UCS summit focuses on call to action to address growing poverty in Johnson County

Karen Wulfkuhle of United Community Services addresses the annual summit Tuesday.
Karen Wulfkuhle of United Community Services addresses the annual summit Tuesday.

United Community Services of Johnson County continued its multi-year focus on poverty in the county at Tuesday’s annual summit with a call to action for human service agencies to focus on work, education and the safety net.

In Johnson County, 33,000 residents live below the federal poverty level, a number that has more than doubled since 2000. The organizations at the summit were asked to look at what they could each do to make a difference in providing good jobs, supporting early childhood education and development and increasing access to the safety net supports for adults without children and transitional age youth (18 to 24).

UCS Executive Director Karen Wulfkuhle said state and federal support for the safety net is diminishing and the task falls more to the county to provide those services. In Johnson County, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program has seen a 70 percent reduction since 2011 in the number of people served each month, dropping from 2,800 to 800. The poverty rate in the county, though, has not changed, she said. “The safety net is increasingly strained.”

The county has reaffirmed its commitment to addressing poverty, said Assistant County Manager Maury Thompson. “The system is extremely complex,” he said, “if you are a family struggling with poverty.

About half of those in poverty are childless, Wulfkuhle said, calling for more support for childless adults who do not have the same level of assistance available.

“A significant share of the poor work,” Wulfkuhle said, with more than 60 percent working full or part-time.

Presenter Ken Williams, CEO of Catholic Charities, got a round of applause when he announced his organization is launching a project to fight the payday loan industry. The program will buy back the loans, which can have an interest rate as high as 128 percent, he said, and supplant them with a bank loan at six percent.

Williams also reinforced the limited resources for childless families under 65. “Options are really scarce,” he said. In that group 30 percent are in poor health and 20 percent have poor mental health, he said.

The framework for the call to action, Wulfkuhle said, was based on national research into effective strategies and interviews with 32 local organizations that help with the safety net.