Southwest Wichita faces rising poverty

Census Tract 27 is sliding into poverty faster than any other neighborhood in Wichita.

"People move in and out fast here. I'm sure that has a lot to do with it," said neighborhood resident Melissa Corkins. "If they bring more jobs to this area, I'm sure that would help a lot."

In the past decade, the poverty rate has grown from 9.4 percent to 33.6 percent in this neighborhood, which straddles Kellogg just west of the Arkansas River, according to statistics compiled for a national poverty report by the Brookings Institution.

The Washington-based research group concluded that at least 2 million more Americans are living in impoverished areas than a decade ago.

"We lost ground against concentrated poverty in the 2000s," Elizabeth Kneebone, the lead author of the study, said in her report. "More people are living in areas that are extremely poor, and concentrated poverty now affects a greater swath of communities than in the past."

The Midwest and South have been hit particularly hard, she said.

Locally, Brookings' data shows that south Wichita, along the I-235 corridor south of Kellogg, is sliding into poverty faster than most of the rest of the city.

Almost the entire southwest quadrant of the city saw poverty increase by more than 10 percent since 2000, the study shows.

"That is a lot of my district," said Michael O'Donnell, elected this year to represent southwest Wichita District 4 on the City Council. "I'm really concerned about it."

He said the loss of manufacturing jobs — especially in the city's signature aircraft industry — has left its mark on the traditionally blue-collar core of Wichita's economy.

City policy also plays a role, he said. Tax money to revitalize Wichita has flowed mostly downtown and to perennially impoverished neighborhoods northeast of the city core.

And while south Wichita has struggled to stave off decay, its taxpayers had to support downtown improvements, such as the recent decision to build a $7 million parking garage to serve a boutique hotel, he said.

Meanwhile, he said, Meridian, one of the main streets south of Kellogg, is crumbling.

"What could we have done with $7 million?" he said. "I think if you live south of Kellogg, you get overlooked."

The Brookings report is based on Census data. The organization compared poverty rates in 2000 to the average rates reported by the Census for 2005-09.

According to the report, south Wichita is still less impoverished than northeast Wichita and Planeview, traditionally the most economically challenged areas of the city.

In those areas, more than 40 percent of residents live in poverty. In south Wichita, poverty rates are generally in the 20s and 30s.

The south side probably fell further because it had further to fall, said Nancy McCarthy Snyder, director of the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs at Wichita State University.

"What we've experienced is the decline of the middle class and the erosion of meaningful employment opportunities for a significant number of the population," she said.

Southwest Wichita has been heavily dependent on manufacturing jobs, which offer a middle-class standard of living for people who have not completed much education past high school.

The area also skews younger than much of the city, with a high percentage of single parents and children. While Social Security and Medicare keep poverty from afflicting most elderly people, there is much less support for programs to help younger people and children.

"It's a big policy decision," Snyder said. "That 20-something single woman who decides to have a child — or who doesn't decide not to have a child — is not very sympathetic. Senior citizens are sympathetic."

That largely explains why the poverty rate for children is 21 percent and for seniors, 9 percent, she said.

Another factor that hurts south Wichita is a lower level of education, she said. Children of blue-collar workers tend to follow their parents' ways and not seek a higher education, isolating themselves from knowledge and contact networks that lead to higher-paying jobs.

In Census Tract 27, jobs are few. And those that exist are mostly low-paying, Corkins said. She and her boyfriend, Alex Ramos, are raising three children, ages 2, 4 and 6, in a small, tidy house near the corner of Mentor and Osage.

They're among the lucky ones. Corkins has a steady job in customer service with a phone company and a car to get there. Ramos is a roofer who works for whatever contractor is hiring.

He makes decent money when he's working. But he's seen his income drop because of competition from outside companies that descend on the city after periodic storms that damage roofs.

"Sometimes a lot of people come from Texas or other places around here," he said. "They do the jobs for next to nothing, I guess."

A lot of his neighbors don't have transportation and can't find steady work within walking distance, he said.

"They get a job for a week and either quit or get fired for some reason," he said.