Community Leaders Look to Restore Financial Stability to Johnson County Residents

Compared to national and state averages, Johnson County residents face increasing poverty rates.

By: Stefanie Schultz

The Food Bank at the Johnson County Crisis Center provides groceries and household supplies for nearly 700 Johnson County residents a week. Photo by: Stefanie Schultz

Hundreds of brown paper bags filled with groceries line the tables at the Johnson County Crisis Center. Tomorrow local residents will arrive to collect them.

For nearly three years, some area residents have been impacted by the economic recession. Organizations, such as the Johnson County Crisis Center, provide aid for residents who struggle to purchase basic household necessities, such as groceries.

A 2010 community assessment released by the Iowa Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on tax and budget issues, shows alarming financial statistics about Johnson County residents.

The assessment focuses on local and national demographics and how they are  effected by recent poverty increases. The study also compares economic data that was compiled between 2000 and 2008. The recently published assessment has been a guide regarding poverty issues around the Johnson County area, said community leaders.

Financial expert David Hagen, of the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, said poverty levels are determined by an individual’s gross income level and the size of their household. Currently, Johnson County falls around 15 percent below the national poverty level, while other surrounding counties fall between nine and 10 percent, said Hagen.

Poverty Stereotypes

As the poverty rate increases throughout Johnson County, so does stereotypes regarding poverty. The belief that people who live in poverty do not work is a common misconception, said Fields. Yet, according to the 2010 assessment, only about 4 percent of Johnson County residents living in poverty do not work.

“For many low-income families, working at a low paying job is not enough to provide for a family. Minimum wage is almost impossible to live off of. It is extremely difficult to provide food for a family, transportation, and pay bills. That’s what many low-income families deal with. They work but they don’t make enough to support themselves and their family,” said Beth Ruback, Communication and Development Director for the Crisis Center of Johnson County.

Assessment Results and Factors

According to the Iowa Policy Project’s assessment, the percentage of Johnson County families living in poverty has risen. In 2008, 5.2 percent of families lived in poverty, compared to 6 percent in 2008. The percentage of children in Johnson County living in poverty has risen by 40 percent between 2000 and 2008. Senior citizen poverty rates are also on the rise. According to the assessment Johnson County seniors experienced a 63 percent poverty increase from 2000 to 2008.

Some organizations are battling the increase in seniors living in poverty by providing opportunities for local seniors. For seniors, the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program offers internship programs that provide re-training, paid internships, and job counseling, said Hagen.

“Seniors have the potential to be excellent resources for employers if they have a skill set that meets the current market. In Benton County, we [the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program] provide home maintenance services, medical loans, home delivered meals and a site for hot meals and socialization,” said Hagen.

While Johnson County’s poverty rates remain lower than national poverty rates, the numbers are still cause for concern, said community leaders.

“I have seen an increase in people [locally] using organizations such as the Crisis Center’s Food Bank,” said Patti Fields, Director of Community Impact of United Way of Johnson County.

While ways to reverse the increase in poverty are discussed, community leaders and financial experts believe a variety of factors played a role in rising poverty rates. A key factor was the recent economic recession.

“[In 2008] the economy took a hard hit and many people lost their jobs. However it’s important to remember that [poverty] hasn’t just been a national problem. It’s also been a local problem,” said Fields.

Fields also said a large influx in female-single-parent households, the continuous increase in cost of living, and the 2008 flood are additional factors.

“[The flood] changed our community greatly and significantly reduced the amount of affordable housing for some individuals and families,” said Fields.

Community and Organizational Efforts

Johnson County has multiple organizations that help low-income individuals and families. An example is the Johnson County Crisis Center. The Crisis Center’s Food Bank was established 40 years ago and provides groceries, once a week, to Johnson County residents. Birthday bags, employment opportunities and counseling are also available.

The Crisis Center provides various resources for people throughout Johnson County. They provide job postings and a food bank for local low-income families. Photo by: Stefanie Schultz

Additional resources for low-income individuals and families are also provide throughout Johnson County. The Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity, the United Way of Johnson County and the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program also help low-income Iowa City and Johnson County residents.

Unlike other programs, the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program serves six local counties including; Benton, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn and Washington. In the 2010 fiscal year the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program served over 19,000 households and 52,000 individuals in all six counties, said Hagen.

The Hawkeye Area Community Action Program works with Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LHEAP, to provide energy assistance to nearly 8000 families with an income level below 150 percent of poverty each heating season, said Hagen.

“Without the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program and other community providers, more people would be forced to making decisions between food, rent, heat, or Johnny’s winter coat,” said Hagen.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided additional funds to increase services to people in need.

“[The Recovery Act] came at a critical time as state funding and community donations have decreased with the recession. Human services funding typically decreases as it trends with the economy. Thus, when it is needed most the resources to assist people often are not available,” said Hagen.

Future Outlook
Local agencies, including the United Way, the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, and the Johnson County Crisis Center continue to assess and aid low-income families. However, many challenges remain, such as the distribution of information and constant community changes.

“Solutions to poverty require community. Building community requires partnerships. It is important that [local organizations] help people acquire skills to take ownership of their situation or provide various income supports or service that fill those gaps,” said Hagen.

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