Issues of inequity dominate discussion at 2019 Johnson County Human Services summit

For decades, Johnson County maintained an image as a land of plenty where residents benefited from a healthy economy, good-paying jobs, and relatively affordable housing options.

But data that’s emerged over the last decade has shown that many people in Johnson County are struggling to pay the bills or to keep a roof over their heads. And stark differences exist between neighborhoods separated by just a few miles.

That was among the messages delivered at the 2019 Human Services Summit on Tuesday, led by United Community Services of Johnson County.

To illustrate the issue, speakers presented information to attendees showing a variety of data points for people living in a part of eastern Shawnee versus people living in a part of Prairie Village. “Community A” in east Shawnee is bordered by 55th Street, Shawnee Mission Parkway, Quivira Road and the city limit with Merriam. “Community B” is bordered by 75th and 83rd streets, between Nall Avenue and Mission Road.

Data collected by UCS of Johnson County shows that people in Community A have a 13 year lower average life expectancy than people living in Community B. The two communities are just five miles apart from each other.

Among the other findings:

  • Housing burdens: Twice the number of people in Community A struggle with housing issues (33 percent) compared with those in Community B (17 percent).
  • Children living in poverty: 20 percent of children live in poverty in Community A, compared with 0 percent in Community B.
  • Median household income: Community B’s average household income ($80,508), is double that of Community A’s ($46,285)
  • Bachelor’s degree or higher: Community B’s higher education level (66 percent of the population) is nearly three times that of Community A’s (23 percent of the population)
  • Population by race: Community A is more racially diverse, (80 percent are white, 16 percent are Hispanic, 4 percent are black). On the other hand, Community B’s population is much less racially diverse (98 percent are white, 1 percent are Hispanic).
  • The 13-year difference in life expectancy: The average life expectancy in Community A is 73 years, compared with 86 years in Community B.
Julie Brewer, executive director of United Community Services of Johnson County

Julie Brewer, executive director of United Community Services of Johnson County, said they have been collecting and presenting data like this for many years. She said that the data don’t always do a good job of demonstrating the true inequities that exist, though.

“We are already in that habit of sharing so much data but not thinking of the storyteller,” Brewer said. “Too often, we let the data be the story, and the data should only inform how we construct the story.”

Brewer and other speakers and panelists at the summit took a holistic view on issues influenced by economic stress and poverty, including affordable housing issues. For community leaders, enacting change is more about showing a clear and convincing need for affordable housing in a way that addresses other aspects of a community, including healthy lifestyles, transportation issues and access to medical care. It also involves multiple stakeholders coming together to provide solutions for equal access to healthcare and other needs.

Keynote speaker Dr. Tiffany Manuel, president and chief executive officer of TheCaseMade

The clear message: Many local stakeholders are working on solutions, and after collecting so much data over the years, there is both room for optimism and a clear need to double down on efforts that can bring more equity and access to affordable housing throughout the area.

As keynote speaker Dr. Tiffany Manuel, president and chief executive officer of TheCaseMade, phrased it, the solution to creating equity is not simply building more housing; it’s about optimism for the future and “building a sense that something bigger is possible.”

“There’s no greater issue right now in our country than building a sense of public will, because lots of folks may have lost the sense that something that bigger is possible,” she said. “This is possible. There really are solutions. We can actually do this. And that’s important, because so many of us have become cynical about what’s possible.”