UNDERSTANDING THE GAPS OF MEETING BASIC NEEDS
At a time marked by increasing division and isolation, where people seem determined to push each other further apart, it is both refreshing and inspiring to witness a vibrant community rising above these challenges. Kansas Citians remind us it is possible to come together and make a tangible difference. Every day, we witness the convergence of individuals, companies, and nonprofit organizations, all driven by a shared goal of fostering a thriving and healthy community for all. Kansas City has cultivated a deep-rooted commitment to giving back and supporting our friends, colleagues, and neighbors in times of need. With nearly 10,000 501(c)(3) nonprofits operating across the 11 counties of Kansas City (Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership 2020, 3), our community is teeming with extraordinary initiatives aimed at addressing a wide range of pressing challenges.
As a convener and collaborator in the domains of health, education, and financial stability, United Way possesses a unique perspective on the challenges faced by individuals and the emerging trends in our community. We have adopted a comprehensive approach, triangulating data from multiple sources to conduct a thorough landscape analysis.
As the operator of Kansas City’s 211, a 24/7 information and referral service, we engage with individuals on a constant basis, addressing the issues they encounter, understanding the barriers they face, and responding to their immediate needs, which often reveal underlying systemic challenges that the Kansas City nonprofit ecosystem must confront. In 2022, United Way’s 211 handled over 300,000 contacts, including 107,196 local calls which, impart, informed our analysis. Additionally, our research encompasses population-level data obtained from the U.S. Census American Community Survey as well as insights from community needs assessments conducted by partner organizations. In cases where local data is unavailable or incomplete, we have dedicated extensive efforts to researching national data that sheds light on the struggles experienced within our metropolitan area. Moreover, we have engaged in meaningful conversations with agencies, corporate leaders, donors, service recipients, and members of our community. Through this comprehensive analysis of data, information, and dialogue, we have identified a series of domain areas and issues that we consider the most urgent in our community and where United Way is uniquely positioned to effect positive change.
This assessment primarily focuses on United Way of Greater Kansas City’s six-county service area: Platte, Clay, Jackson, and Cass Counties in Missouri, as well as Johnson and Wyandotte Counties in Kansas. Unless otherwise noted, these will be the counties referred to as the Kansas City metro. The metro is home to nearly two million people, each with their own unique differences, nuances, and experiencing disparities at both the county and sub-county levels, making it challenging to encapsulate within a single report. As you delve into this analysis, you will likely notice the interconnectedness, interplay, and coexistence of various issues. Poverty, with its far-reaching impact on households, cuts across each issue. Many of these issues are intertwined, such that addressing one necessitates tackling others (e.g., healthcare and transportation). Within each domain, distinct experiences and disparities exist, often influenced by factors such as race, gender identification, sexual orientation, income, immigration status, and other demographic variables. Moreover, these identities intersect, giving rise to additional experiences that demand attention, analysis, and a proactive approach as we strive to build a more equitable community. This needs index serves as part of United Way’s commitment to staying attuned to the intricate ecosystem that is Kansas City, as we unite with our loved ones, friends, and neighbors to become WaymakersTM in the place we proudly call home.
Meeting Basic Needs
Without stable housing, the ability to focus on anything else in life becomes nearly impossible. Housing serves as the foundation for safety, stability, and economic mobility. The spectrum of housing instability spans from individuals and families experiencing homelessness to those residing in unsafe and/or unaffordable housing. Poor-quality housing exposes individuals to health risks such as lead, mold, asbestos, poor air quality, and overcrowding. For children, housing instability disrupts their lives, limiting enrichment opportunities, impeding academic performance, and creating unequal access to high-performing schools, thereby hindering long-term social and economic development.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are an estimated 582,000 people who experience homelessness on any given night across our nation (de Sousa et al. 2022). In the Kansas City area alone, there are approximately 2,400 individuals experiencing homelessness on any given night (Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness 2023; Missouri Balance of State Continuum of Care email to the author 2023; United Community Services 2022). Finding and maintaining a home is challenging as Kansas City faces a shortage of 64,000 affordable rental units (Mid-America Regional Council 2023a), and rents have increased by 20% since 2019 (Mid-America Regional Council 2022). In the Kansas City metro, 115,863 renter households (43% of all renters) are rent-burdened, meaning they spend 30% or more of their gross income per month on rent, while 53,069 renter households (19% of all renters) are severely rent-burdened, meaning they allocate 50% or more of their gross monthly income to rent (U.S. Census Bureau 2022a). Rising rents, inflation, and economic instability resulting from the pandemic have led to numerous households being evicted or facing the risk of eviction, with profound consequences. As Margery Austin Turner, the Urban Institute’s Senior Vice President for Program Planning and Management, aptly stated, “Parents suffer at work, kids suffer at school, the combination of residential and financial insecurity stands in the way of upward mobility for families, and it’s costly for the cities where those families live.” (Peiffer 2018). Regrettably, with limited shelter beds available, households have nowhere to turn, as requests for hotel vouchers were the top unmet need in Kansas City in 2022, as reported by United Way’s 211 referral service.
Recognizing that housing is the fundamental first step in addressing many other needs, United Way is deeply committed to transforming Kansas City’s housing landscape. We invest significantly in initiatives aimed at supporting shelters, providing emergency assistance for rent and utility payments, offering legal aid for eviction prevention, and increasing the availability of safe and affordable housing. United Way collaborates with multiple nonprofits, local, state, and federal governments to leverage additional resources and provide a spectrum of housing solutions. For instance, our eviction prevention initiative has successfully helped over 3,000 households avoid the trauma of eviction since its launch in 2020 by connecting households to financial assistance and an attorney to represent them in housing court, when necessary. In addition, United Way has helped local governments design and coordinate a region-wide response that has helped more than 18,000 families avoid eviction through a network of more than 25 social services agencies since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. United Way also supports our area Continuum of Care agencies who promote a communitywide effort to end homelessness. In 2022, United Way’s 211 provided almost 10,000 screenings for callers who identified themselves as being homeless or at-risk of being homeless to provide a common point of entry into Jackson County and Wyandotte County services. In the coming year, United Way will continue this vital work and serve as a catalyst for collaboration to address our community’s housing challenges, ensuring a more equitable system and housing stock for generations to come.
Food and Nutrition Security
The inability to reliably access safe, affordable, and nutritious food can have devastating consequences for individuals and families. The combined challenges of the pandemic and record inflation have left households struggling to secure enough food, while local agencies face limitations in meeting the increased demand. Tragically, certain groups are disproportionately affected by food insecurity, including households with children (particularly single-parent households), individuals with disabilities, veterans, and formerly incarcerated individuals (Hake, Engelhard, and Dewey 2023a, 5). Communities of color also experience higher rates of food insecurity, with Black and Latino populations facing greater levels of food insecurity than their white counterparts in 99% of U.S. counties (Hake, Engelhard, and Dewey 2023a, 7).
There are 182,950 people who are food insecure in the Kansas City metro, but when analyzing county-level data we find that three counties, Wyandotte County, Kansas, Clay County and Jackson County, Missouri exhibit higher rates of food insecurity compared to other counties in the region (Hake, Engelhard, and Dewey 2023b, Hake, Engelhard, and Dewey 2023c). Households grappling with food insecurity also encounter elevated levels of toxic stress, struggle to meet basic needs, experience challenges in securing stable employment, and face difficulties in maintaining physical and mental well-being. Children in food-insecure households may confront developmental obstacles and have lower academic achievement levels (Pathak, Richards, and Jarsulic 2022). While having enough to eat is crucial, it is equally vital to ensure nutrition security, which refers to consistent and equitable access to healthy, safe, and affordable foods essential for optimal health and well-being (United States Department of Agriculture n.d.). Nutrition security plays a critical role in disease treatment and prevention, as every year 600,000 Americans die from diet-related diseases (United States Department of Agriculture n.d.).
Recognizing the critical nature of food and nutrition security, United Way remains committed to investing in a range of solutions to improve food access and create food equity for all members of our community. Support from United Way helps almost 40 agencies across the metro address the challenges of food insecurity. This includes initiatives focused on distribution, mass feeding programs, and systemic changes within the food system. In response to the heightened pressures of inflation during the winter of 2022-2023, United Way provided $450,000 in assistance to 35 local food pantries, enabling these agencies to respond to the increased demand for food support.
Equal access to legal counsel is crucial to achieving fairness within the justice system. While the sixth amendment ensures the right to legal defense in criminal cases, individuals facing civil issues, especially those from low-income backgrounds, encounter significant challenges in accessing legal services. A survey conducted by the Legal Services Corporation reveals that “low-income Americans did not receive any legal help or enough legal help for 92% of the problems that significantly impacted their lives in the past year” (Legal Services Corporation 2022, 19). Civil cases encompass a wide range of issues, including consumer problems (such as medical debt and utility disputes), healthcare-related challenges (like insurance coverage, incorrect billing, and accessing essential services), family safety concerns (such as domestic violence protections, child support, and divorce), income maintenance (including enrollment and upkeep of public benefits like SNAP, TANF, and unemployment), and assistance with criminal record expungement. Regrettably, half of low-income Americans are unsure where they can find and afford legal representation when facing major civil legal problems (Legal Services Corporation 2022, 8). This lack of access has profound implications, leaving many low-income individuals trapped in debt, facing eviction without adequate defense, enduring abusive relationships, and unable to secure equitable access to the healthcare system.
Considering these circumstances, United Way remains deeply committed to supporting legal services for low-income and vulnerable individuals throughout our metropolitan area, making it a top priority for our investments. Through funding and collaboration with organizations such as Kansas Legal Services and Legal Aid of Western Missouri, we have played a crucial role in providing amicable solutions to eviction cases and ensuring widespread availability of multiple legal services for households in need across the metro. With the support of United Way, those two organizations provided legal assistance to almost 8,000 Kansas City residents. By championing access to legal representation, United Way strives to address the systemic barriers that prevent fairness and justice for low-income individuals, empowering them to overcome legal obstacles and achieve a more equitable future.
Access to reliable, safe, and affordable transportation is crucial for educational opportunities, economic mobility, and the overall well-being of households. Kansas City faces unique transportation challenges, including limited public transportation options (Kaufmann 2022) and extensive freeway development, with more lane miles per capita than nearly any other U.S. city except Nashville (Herriges 2020), making access to a car vital for consistent transportation. However, car ownership is expensive, with costs for new/used vehicles and gas/insurance/maintenance steadily increasing, and the burdens of automobile dependency falling disproportionately on marginalized communities, especially Black and low-income populations (Cogan 2023). Research conducted by the Kansas City Federal Reserve reveals that transportation is one of the primary barriers faced by low- to moderate-income communities in accessing employment opportunities (Edmiston 2020). These transportation barriers not only impede individuals’ access to K-12 and higher education but also contribute to rescheduled or missed appointments, delayed healthcare, and difficulties in adhering to medication regimens, leading to poor disease management and health outcomes (Syed, Gerber, and Sharp 2013).
Although recent efforts, such as the implementation of zero-fare buses in Kansas City, Missouri, and the availability of free streetcar rides, have been made, the current public transit options remain limited, with only 12.8% of low-income households residing near a transit system (Mansaray 2022). Recognizing the far-reaching impact of transportation on various aspects of life, United Way continues to prioritize investment in programs and agencies that work towards achieving equitable transportation access for all individuals in Kansas City. In response to this challenge, United Way’s 211 helpline has partnered with Lyft, a ridesharing company, to provide rides to high-need and eligible households, ensuring they can reach vital destinations such as medical appointments and workplaces. Over the past two years, the collaborative efforts of United Way’s 211 and Lyft have facilitated 3,065 rides for residents of the Kansas City metro area who are most in need of transportation assistance.
By addressing transportation barriers and facilitating access to reliable transportation options, United Way aims to create a more equitable and connected community in which individuals can thrive. These initiatives, along with our ongoing partnerships and investments, play a pivotal role in enhancing transportation access and promoting the overall well-being and economic advancement of individuals and families throughout Kansas City.
Thank you to research and community partners for supplying information and support critical to this community needs index including (in order or citation): Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership, Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness, Mid America Regional Council, Legal Services Corporation, US Census Bureau, US Dept of Agriculture, Kauffman Foundation, Kauffman Foundation, US Census Bureau, Urban Institute, US Dept of Housing and Urban Development, Kansas Legal Services, Legal Aid of Western Missouri.