When it comes to fighting chronic homelessness, Utah is developing an impressive track record. The Utah homes for the homeless initiative and the Road Home shelter have managed to combine an impressive array of local agencies and resources to make a serious dent in the problem and become a model for the nation.
Now, the state needs to do the same when it comes to solving the vexing problem of intergenerational poverty, a legacy that for too many people is handed down like a genetic marker.
State lawmakers took the first step down that road last year by passing a bill requiring the Utah Department of Workforce Services to track data on intergenerational poverty in order to get a scope of the problem. Now, lawmakers in 2013 have passed SB53, a bill sponsored by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, which sets up a commission to study causes and identify solutions. In keeping with the cooperative model that attacked homelessness, this bill will involve the heads of five state departments — workforce services, health and human services, the superintendent of public instruction, the state juvenile court administrator and a nonvoting chairman.
The strength of such an effort lies in how it will force these administrators to look beyond the confines of their own offices and find collaborative solutions. That will require studying things that work elsewhere and finding ways to share information to keep each agency from treating the same problem independently. Ideally, every state employee involved with someone struggling through poverty, from a schoolteacher to a caseworker, will be working together.
The data collected during the first year of the mandated Workforce Services study was startling. The initial report found 364,822 people living in poverty in Utah, which is about 13.2 percent of the population. The number of children in poverty, 136,751, is about 16 percent of all children in Utah.
The good news is that Utah's poverty rate is lower than that of many other states, but the bad news is the rate has been rising. Whether this is a consequence of the struggling economy or of changing demographics hardly matters to those who are caught in the problem. It does matter, however, to those seeking solutions. Hard data and the combined expertise of state officials who deal directly with the problem ought to go far toward identifying areas that need attention.
The stakes couldn't be higher. The initial report also found that the longer someone spent in poverty as a child, the longer he or she spent in poverty as an adult. This suggests that learned behaviors, familial dysfunction and other factors may be disrupting a child's ability to do well in school or to require the personal skills necessary to obtain and keep gainful employment later in life.
There is more to this than the social costs that mount through crime and welfare needs, although those are enormous byproducts of intergenerational poverty. The biggest cost may be the lost potential to society of someone whose talents are not allowed to develop and whose contributions otherwise could enrich the lives of everyone else in the state.
If it succeeds, the new state commission could do for the problem of "inherited" poverty what the homeless initiative has done for the previously hard-core homeless, creating another template for the rest of the nation.