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Child poverty increases in Johnson County

BY CARLY MATTHEW | FEBRUARY 20, 2015 5:00 AM

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Child poverty has increased dramatically in the state of Iowa since 2000, according to new Iowa Kids Count data for 2013. 

“In the last six or seven years, the economy has caused people to be unemployed or underemployed,” said Kids Count Director Michael Crawford.

However, Johnson County had better results in several categories than others across the state.

According to the data, the county’s child-poverty, food-assistance, free or reduced-price lunch eligibility, and unemployment rates are better than the state averages.

Still, the data say these numbers, for the most part, have worsened dramatically since 2000.

The percentage of children in poverty, for example, has increased from 9 to 12.6 percent.

Nationwide, the child-poverty rate was 23 percent in 2011, according a national study from Kids Count.

Though the unemployment rate in Johnson County is 1.5 percentage point lower than the state average at 3.2 percent, residents are still nowhere near as well off as they might have been pre-recession.

“We’ve seen a substantial increase in demand for our services,” said, Sarah Benson Witry, the Food Bank and emergency-assistance director for the Crisis Center of Johnson County.

Benson Witry said the number of households the Food Bank serves has remained consistent over time, but families who receive assistance have experienced increased need as many take in extended family members.

Rod Sullivan, the vice chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said he attributes the increase in poverty rates in the county to a poor economy but also to an influx in the number of people moving into the county to work relatively low-paying jobs.

“Johnson County is an attractive place to live, and that’s the same whether you’re wealthy or poor,” he said.

The population in Johnson County increased by around 28,000 from 2000 to 2013, according to the U.S. Census.

“Johnson County is a cross-section of financial well-being of families,” Crawford said.

Crawford said he believes the population of graduate students and the number of people from the Chicago area moving to southeastern Iowa City may be part of the equation, but the economy was the main factor at play.

“In the last six or seven years, the economy has caused people to be unemployed or underemployed,” he said.

Lynette Jacoby, the director of Johnson County Social Services, said the influx of residents may not have caused these changes in numbers.

“That might be one of the contributing factors, but I think the issue is much more complex,” Jacoby said.

Jacoby said she thinks, for example, living in Johnson County is expensive.

Benson Witry said she agreed housing is a major issue for Johnson County families.

“The number of apartment vacancies are low, so landlords have been able to increase rent,” she said. “Minimum-wage workers, particularly those with children, have a hard time paying it.”

Some funds Johnson County provides, Jacoby said, include social-service block grants to nonprofits promoting health and well-being, including around $1.2 million last year.

It also provided approximately $500,000 in “decategorization” funds to keep children out of the welfare system.

She said the county also has a state-mandated general assistance program offering families emergency assistance at about $400,000 last year.

When considering the numbers, University of Iowa economica Assistant Professor David Frisvold said one major factor should be kept in mind.

“We’re still coming off a very large recession,” he said.


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