Ask the director of New Hope Shelter about what brings someone to the organization's front door looking for a place to sleep, and James Wilson will talk about how difficult it is to point to one thing. Ask him a more focused question about rent versus wages, and he can drill things down a bit more.
"It is interesting for us here to see the complexity of the system failure that people do not see or understand that leads people here and into poverty, causes them to be evicted or have their house foreclosed on," Wilson said. "It is amazing how complex it all is."
One of those factors — itself a bit complex — is the cost of rent versus how much a wage earner makes, especially if that wage earner is making minimum wage.
According to the National Low Incoming Housing Coalition, a minimum-wage worker in Kansas would need to work 88 hours week to afford rental of a two-bedroom rental home. That ranks the state 41st overall. Kansas observes the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour.
According to Wilson, 26 percent of homeless shelter residents in Newton are employed.
"They are working, they just cannot stay where they are," Wilson said.
The same data shows the housing wage for Newton for a two-bedroom home at $15 per hour and one-bedroom wage at $11.35 per hour. North Newton is slightly lower at $14.04 and $10.58 per hour, respectively. For Harvey County, the wage stands at $15.13, requiring 2.1 full-time jobs at minimum wage.
In neighboring Butler County wage required stands at $15.13 per hour for a two-bedroom, requiring 2.1 full-time jobs at minimum wage.
In McPherson County the wage to afford a two-bedroom rental is $13.94, requiring 1.9 jobs at minimum wage.
In New Hope Shelter, 70 percent of people leaving at the end of 90 days leave with an income — 62 percent of the employable people are employed.
"That is people living in the shelter, saving up money so that they can get into a place," Wilson said.
According to a housing study for the city of Newton, the fair market rent, calculated by the U.S. Department of Housing, for a two-bedroom home is $807 — an increase of 29.3 percent since 2011.
"A big issue is there is not enough low-income housing, or enough complexes that are cheap enough to get into," Wilson said. "When they are working with (a rental program) they are given a range, and it is hard for someone to find something within that."
That, he said, is due in part to the lack of a landlord/tenant organization, improvements that may be needed for some property owners to participate in housing programs, and the stagnation of wages.
The rent versus income issue is a national one. According to the study, no local minimum wage is sufficient to rent a two-bedroom apartment while working 40 hours per week. In counties with "significant affordable housing," 47 hours per week are necessary; those with the most expensive housing require 220 hours. There are only 168 hours in a week.
According to research by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a person earning minimum wage and working a 40-hour week can afford a one-bedroom home at fair market rent in Just 22 of the country’s more than 3,000 counties.
"We have talked about systemic barriers, and housing is one the first things that come up," said Jennifer Rose, director of Peace Connections and Circles of Hope. The Circles program works to help get people out of poverty. "It is definitely a concern. ... Housing, to have enough to pay for it or on your wage, the housing you get is not the housing that is maintained."
According to the Pew Research Center, part of the issue lies in four decades of inflation outpacing wage growth. In a 2018 study, Drew DeSilverr, a senior writer at Pew Research Center, wrote " After adjusting for inflation ... today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power it did in 1978, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms average hourly earnings peaked more than 45 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 had the same purchasing power that $23.68 would today."
"When you are making $10 an hour, and your wife is making $10 an hour, and you are a family of three trying to live in a two-bedroom home, that is really stretching things," Wilson said.