K-State Research and Extension News
January 17, 2014
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Combating Poverty in Kansas

K-State Research and Extension professionals aim to apply a new curriculum into Kansas community programs, in hopes to decrease the poverty rate

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Take a journey back in time 50 years, to January 1964. The State of the Union address by former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson brought attention to poverty, which later led to the passing of federal legislation to assist citizens in need. That same month, Bob Dylan released his album “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” a collection of songs that spoke to a time of social change and the issues of racism and poverty.

While many things have changed since 1964, time hasn’t brought much change to some areas of concern. When Johnson’s War on Poverty commenced, the U.S. poverty rate was around 19 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The census’ most recent overall poverty rate from 2012 is slightly down from 50 years ago at 15 percent, but the poverty rate for chil­dren under age 18 is nearly 22 per­cent.

In Kansas, that census showed a current overall poverty rate at 13 percent, slightly down from the national average. The childhood poverty rate, though, is a percentage point higher in Kansas, according to 2013 data from the Kansas Action for Children, a nonprofit organization committed to improving the lives of Kansas’ families and children. Nearly one in four Kansas children live in poverty.

“I think the growth in poverty is a long-term trend in Kansas,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of the Kansas Action for Children. “If you look back to 2003, we were just under 12 percent of children living in poverty. Now we’re just under 24 percent, so it’s almost doubled in the last decade.”

In an attempt to lessen Kansas’ poverty rate, a group of K-State Research and Extension professionals, including campus faculty, state specialists and agents, plan to undergo training in a curriculum called “Together We Can: Creating a Healthy Future for our Family,” which was developed by Michigan State University Extension. The “Family and Child Development” program focus team is the K-State group that will receive training later this spring.

Once the team members are trained in the curriculum, as well as the social and economic factors that impact families near poverty, they will be more prepared to provide community programs and support throughout the state in the curriculum’s six focus areas: positive co-parenting relationships, stress and conflict management strategies, ongoing involvement of both parents, money management/child support payment, and healthy decisions about couple relationships.

Lisa Newman, a family development agent for the K-State Research and Extension Central Kansas District, is a co-chair for the “Family and Child Development” team. The team members, she said, will use the curriculum to help families out of poverty in the local communities they serve. The curriculum’s particular focus is on young, single-parent families, as many people in poverty come from single-parent head of households.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics Reports, the most current data from 2011 shows the birth rate for unmarried women in the United States at 41 percent, which is slightly down from 2007-2008 but still up from 33 percent in 2000 and 18 percent in 1980. In Kansas, the current rate is just over 37 percent.

Newman said she looks forward to using the “Together We Can” curriculum in the work she does in Ottawa and Saline counties. A recent report by K-State examining child and family well-being in Kansas showed that Saline County particularly was in the top five Kansas counties for childhood poverty at just over 28 percent and was also higher than the state and national averages in birth rate for unmarried women at 48 percent. More Kansas county data can be found by accessing the report.

Newman is currently on the guiding coalition for Circles of the Heartland for Saline County, a local group that is part of the Circles USA national initiative to equip families and communities to resolve poverty, and works with the Wichita-based Kansas Leadership Center on poverty issues.

“I try to be that field faculty member who is able to provide resources, whether that is the programming with ‘Together We Can’ or helping with whatever resources I can pull together from state specialists from Kansas or somewhere else in the country,” Newman said. “It gives me great comfort knowing I have access to research-based, safe, reliable resources to provide to families in need.”

Reasons behind poverty

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA-ERS), “any individual with total income less than an amount deemed to be sufficient to purchase basic needs of food, shelter, clothing and other essential goods and services is poor.”

The amount of income necessary to purchase these basic needs is the poverty line. The current poverty line for a family of four, for example, is $23,550 before taxes. Current federal poverty lines for all sizes of families can be found on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.

Elaine Johannes is an associate professor and extension specialist in youth development for the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University and serves as co-chair with Newman on the “Family and Child Development” team. She said there are numerous reasons behind poverty in Kansas.

The single-parent head of household situations play a big factor, Johannes said. Single parents are primarily females who are often unemployed, or most likely, under-employed. Minimum wage last went up in 2009 and is currently $7.25 per hour in the United States.

In some situations, she said, there is a lack of full-time, well-paid positions available due to industries leaving the state or businesses scaling back due to a slow recovery from the economic recession that hit five years ago.

“The answer to this real dilemma is complex,” Johannes said. “We also have to look at the safety net programs that have formally been funded and are no longer receiving the same amount of funding. We formally had sustainably funded safety net programs like child health insurance, Head Start, access to early education, certain subsidies for housing and access for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), for example.”

Johannes said when all of these things make it more difficult for parents to make ends meet, more children become eligible for free and reduced meals in schools. According to the Kansas Action for Children, nearly 50 percent of Kansas schoolchildren received free or reduced price lunches in 2013, an increase from 43 percent in 2009. This is where child hunger becomes a concern.

“When school is not in session, these kids are not eating in many cases or maybe are fortunate if they get one meal a day,” Cotsoradis said. “There aren’t a lot of sites for kids to access free and reduced meal programs during the summer months in Kansas.

A family and community issue

When children are born into poverty, they face numerous challenges. According to Child Trends, a nonprofit organization that provides information about the well-being of U.S. children and youth, poverty harms a child’s brain and other body systems, leads to poor health, and creates and widens achievement gaps. Poor children are more likely to live in neighborhoods with more crime and violence, and they often have a home environment with more stress, aggravation and depression among family members.

Also, poor families from rural communities are more susceptible to living in poverty, according to a recent USDA-ERS report.  Johannes said rural communities might not have grocery stores close by where families can use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or are too small to have childcare availability or a Head Start program in place. The Kansas Action for Children reported that currently there are only 43 slots available in Head Start programs for every 100 eligible children across the state.

People, especially in rural communities, often do not have close access to healthcare, including mental health treatment.

“It’s not only early childhood poverty that is a concern, especially when you think about teen suicide,” Johannes said. “When a young person is growing up in chronic poverty, they either build resilience and move through it, they acquiesce to it and continue in the cycle which seems to be what mostly happens, or they become so depressed and dismayed that they give up.”

If people don’t notice poverty in their communities, Johannes said, they probably intentionally don’t notice it because it is scary to think about.

“Even here in Manhattan, we see people standing outside with homeless signs,” Johannes said. “I think people see that, become fearful and ask themselves, ‘If it happens to them, can it happen to me?’ It can. Many Americans are on a bubble and can go either way.”

Building strong communities

Johannes said given all of the issues that influence poverty, it is going to take a full community to help people get out of it.

“‘Together We Can’ really equips our agents to work in concert with faith, business, education, health, industry and other community circles, to address well-being and family poverty from a lot of different perspectives,” Johannes said. “We might not have the one solution, but we are equipped to bring evidenced-based knowledge and systems support to work in concert with communities.”

Integrating the curriculum into an established community group or program is key to helping it reach more people.

“Our successful agents embed their work inside of coalitions, systems, networks and safety net agencies of public health and schools, for example,” Johannes said.

Newman’s work with the Circles of the Heartland for Saline County is an example of an agent finding success working inside another community group. Newman said she can see “Together We Can” being applicable also to local Head Start programs, community action programs or any other programs or groups where those in poverty can be reached.

More home and family resources are available on the K-State Research and Extension website.

Sidebar 1: More About Circles

The Circles of the Heartland for Saline County is one of the newest Circles programs in Kansas. Including the one in Salina, there are eight total Circles community programs in the state.

Circles is a national initiative that focuses on three main areas to help people out of poverty: crisis management and stabilization, education and job placement, and advancement and economic stability.

Families apply to take part in the program that starts with a 15-week “getting ahead” period, followed by 18 months of networking, learning and training. Newman says 12 families are selected for each rotation in Saline County.

Families, also known as “Circle Leaders,” participate in one meeting each week during the 18-month program. The meetings allow families to come together over a meal, talk about barriers within their communities, listen to programs that provide information to help them out of poverty, and work directly with leaders within their communities, known as “Allies,” to heed advice and build a network of people.

“Already in Saline County, one of the significant things we are finding is that the families in the program are doubling or tripling the number of people in their lives,” Newman said. “That social capital piece is missing in a lot of other programs that work well but often times are not near as long (as Circles).”

Although the Circles program is a time investment, the outcomes have shown that the program does work. The national 2012 Circles Impact Report shows that active participants who have gone through the Circles program in 18 months have, on average, an 88 percent increase in assets, 27 percent increase in income and 27 percent decrease in the need for public benefits.

As part of her service on her local guiding coalition for Circles, Newman organizes speakers for programming meetings and finds volunteers to assist with childcare during the meetings. Providing a meal and childcare removes barriers that would keep these families from coming to the meetings, she said.

It takes a dedicated community to make Circles work, Newman said. Churches and other community groups sign up to prepare and serve the meals for the meetings. “Allies” make a time commitment to attend one meeting each month with the families. Volunteers from extension, colleges and other organizations within the community serve on the guiding coalition board, and private and local donors make funding possible for books and materials.

More information about Circles USA is available at http://www.movethemountain.org.


K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by: Katie Allen
K-State Research & Extension News

Lisa Newman – lmnewman@ksu.edu or 785-309-5850; Elaine Johannes – ejohanne@ksu.edu or 785-532-7720