Survey finds more than 30,000 Johnson Countians live in poverty, every city impacted

Johnson County warming center

More than 30% of young Roeland Park and Merriam residents are living below the poverty line. Above, a man sleeps outside in a makeshift tent in Roeland Park.

Merriam, Roeland Park, Mission and Shawnee are among the northeast Johnson County cities with the highest poverty rates, according to a United Community Services of Johnson County fact sheet.

The local nonprofit’s data details poverty rates for the 19 cities and seven townships in Johnson County, based on five-year estimates (2015-2019) from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

While the data was collected prior to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic it is useful to understand the difficulties residents currently face, UCS staff said in a newsletter.

“Understanding the pre-COVID capacity these households had to meet the cost of living provides some insight as to the challenges COVID-impacted residents may have in terms of their ability to acquire basic needs such as safe housing, health care service, and reliable transportation,” UCS staff wrote.

More than 5% in poverty in Johnson County

At least 31,500 people in Johnson County — 5.4% of the county population — lived at or below the federal poverty level. The federal poverty level in 2019 was $12,490 for an individual and $21,330 for a family of three.

Besides the roughly 31,500 people living below the poverty level, an additional 49,200 county residents live at or below 200% of the poverty level, earning just enough that they avoid the technical definition of poverty. In 2019 estimates, that’s $24,980 for an individual and $42,660 for a family of three.

Every Johnson County city and township has poverty

Every city and township in Johnson County is home to residents experiencing poverty. The data demonstrates that no city or township is exempt from poverty, but poverty is clearly concentrated in some areas in the northeast corner, the county seat of Olathe, along some tracts of I-35, and in both De Soto and Gardner.

Merriam and Roeland Park have the most poverty

Merriam and Roeland Park have some of the highest concentrations of poverty, particularly in young adults.

Five cities with the highest poverty rates are as follows:

  • Merriam: 11.1% (1,223 of 11,042 residents)
  • Roeland Park: 9.3% (631 of 6,769 residents)
  • Spring Hill: 8.4% (554 of 6,582 residents)
  • Mission: 7.9% (749 of 9,476 residents)
  • Shawnee: 7.4% (4,779 of 65,000 residents)

Young adults most likely to experience poverty

When analyzing Johnson County’s 10 largest cities, young adults ages 18-24 were almost always the largest demographic experiencing poverty.

More than 30% of young adults ages 18-24 in both Merriam and Roeland Park experience poverty. In Johnson County’s eight other larger cities, those percentages don’t even come close.

Rough estimates of poverty rates for young adults in top 10 largest cities are as follows:

  • Merriam: 33%
  • Roeland Park: 32%
  • Mission: 14%
  • Lenexa: 13%
  • Shawnee: 11%
  • Overland Park: 10%
  • Prairie Village: 9%
  • Olathe: 8%
  • Gardner: 6%
  • Leawood: 3%

Available food pantries, resources

The data is particularly compelling as food pantries, homeless shelters and other resources have drastically increased the number of families served.

Food pantries serving families in Johnson County, including Jewish Family Services and Harvesters Community Food Network, both report serving hundreds of families.

Project 1020, a homeless shelter for adults in Lenexa, fills its 30 beds each night and works to find other places for people to stay.