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Lawmaker wants to curb poverty with data-oriented approach

Published: Saturday, Jan. 21 2012 10:58 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY An Ogden lawmaker says regular reviews of public assistance data could hold the key to breaking the cycle of poverty.

Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, is sponsoring legislation that would require the Department of Workforce Services to establish and maintain a system to identify at-risk children and groups. The study would also identify trends to caseworkers, social scientists and government officials who develop plans and programs to assist individuals and families to break the cycle of poverty.

A recent review of public assistance records going back to 1982 showed that nearly half of adults on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families were on TANF as children. People who receive TANF assistance are among the state's poorest.

The research, conducted by Workforce Services officials and the University of Utah Social Research Institute, also found that 34 percent of people ages 21 to 39 who receive public assistance benefits were on public assistance as children.

Kristen Cox, executive director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said a lack of education attainment is a common problem. If a mother graduates from high school or at least earns a GED, the likelihood that her children will move into intergeneration poverty decreases, she said.

The department currently operates intensive workshops to prepare people to find and retain employment. Another program, essentially a boot camp to earn General Education Development or GED certificates, also helps them find work.

But Reid also wants the department to approach the issue from the perspective of children whose parents receive public assistance.

People who receive unemployment benefits, for instance, are required to demonstrate that they are actively seeking work. Reid envisions similar requirements of parents who receive public assistance demonstrating that their children are attending school as required and parents are following up on their child's academic progress as well as their nutritional and health care needs.

New programs or approaches that target strategies, and are not punitive, are needed to ensure better outcomes, he said.

"What we want to say is, we're willing to help you adults to the extent we make sure your children have better opportunities for success outside poverty and the welfare system," Reid said.

It is important, Reid said, to differentiate between people who are situational users of public assistance programs and generations of people who rely public assistance.

Most people are short-term users of public assistance, Cox said. They may need temporary help due to a divorce, job loss, major illness or the death of the primary breadwinner in a family.

"Most of our customers are in situations where they're coming in between two and seven months. They're not in the system forever," she said.

Cox said she views Reid's bill, SB37, as a means to further explore the department's data and come up with better policies and practices to help break the cycle of poverty.

"We'll be in discovery mode this year," assuming the bill passes, Cox said. The following year, the department hopes to have policy changes in mind to improve outcomes for children and improves the odds of self-sufficiency for parents.

"When we know what's really going on, where the real hot points are, we'll know where we can make a difference."

Facts about public assistance

Half of adults on TANF also received assistance on children.

34 percent of adults with public assistance (ages 21 to 39) were on assitance as children.

Mothers with high school degrees or GEDs have children that are less likely to need public assistance.

Reid said he is aware of some families in which three generations have been public assistance recipients. The legislation is intended to learn more about recipients and identify means to help them become self-sufficient.

Email:mcortez@desnews.com

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