Breaking the cycle: Children of poverty become adults in poverty

Published: Friday, Sept. 28 2012 8:11 p.m. MDT

Bakar Toese drinks a bottle at the Road Home in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 28, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Sophie Toese hoped that things would change when she had a girl with the father of three of her four children.

"That's his first daughter," she said, gesturing to one-week-old Harmony, who was asleep on a bunk bed in the Road Home. "I thought having a girl would make him change his life. But he just wants to go to parties."

Her family of six, including Toese, 22, her four children and her younger sister, Tina, 19, are sharing a room in the Road Home. They've been there for about a month.

"Momma, fries," her 2-year-old, Jamal, urged Toese as she fed him ice cubes. "Momma, fries."

"I know," she said. "We don't have money for fries. Tomorrow, OK?"

It's part of the dialog here for a young mother living day to day. Toese grew up in American Samoa and it's too soon to say what the future holds for her children. But Toese, simply by virtue of her gender, is almost two times as likely as a man to be a second generation recipient of public assistance. Add the children and the number skyrockets.

It is among several revelations in a report released Friday by the Utah Department of Workforce Services. Called Intergenerational Poverty in Utah 2012, it measures the impact of growing up in poverty and the likelihood that poverty and its related problems will continue into adulthood.

"The more impoverished a person is during childhood, the more likely that person is to receive public assistance as an adult," the report states.

The Utah figures show: "Almost 36,000 children receiving (public assistance) between 1989 and 2008 are now adults receiving (public assistance). These 'second generation' adults are ages 21 to 41 and represent 1 in every 24 Utahns of the same age group," the report states.

Almost 70 percent of all of the mothers in this group have at least two children.

Rick Little, Director of the department’s Workforce Research and Analysis Division, said there have always been examples of intergenerational poverty, but this is the first time that there has been deep research and data to reveal trends and the size of the challenge facing individuals and the state.

It shows just how difficult it will be for Toese to climb out of poverty, and offers a troubling predictor of the challenge facing her children.

"This is the first time we've quantified that," Little said. "Now we want to watch it. This focuses on those individuals who are chronic."

The report is the result of Senate Bill 37 — the Utah Intergenerational Poverty Mitigation Act, passed in 2012. The act establishes a system to tack poverty and an annual report is required to detail those findings.

The information will be passed on to the governor and to legislators and will be used by state and government officials to determine policies for attacking problems associated with poverty. The department's acting executive director, Jon Pierpont, said intergenerational poverty will be a key issue at an Oct. 9 conference seeking solutions to chronic poverty.

"This is the baseline," he said. "Now, what do we want to do moving forward?"

The results looked at numerous categories, including employment history, legal issues, homelessness, number of children in the home, marital status, age and gender.

"This is not a study on intergenerational poverty in total," Joe Demma, communications director at Utah's Department of Workforce Services, said. "It's only people we can identify who are on public assistance."

Currently, 70 percent of all people living in poverty in Utah receive public assistance. But that leaves 30 percent who don't.

The study looked at all adults between the ages of 21 and 40 who were served by the department in fiscal year 2012, which ended June 30, 2012. It then looked at their history of public assistance to determine if the same individuals received public assistance as children.

Data was available back to 1989, limiting the scope to those who are now 40, because those 41 and older would have been older than 17 in 1989.

Little said that as each year passes and reports are issued the results will provide greater depth to the information.

Among the conclusions regarding the adults on public assistance who received public assistance as children:

• They are more than twice as likely to be homeless as other public assistance recipients.

• They are twice as likely to have legal issues and wind up with a record of felonies and misdemeanors.

• They are less likely to have employment experience than other recipients.

• The longer adults experienced poverty as a child, the longer they are likely to be in poverty as adults.

"When you've got a generation passing on to another generation, it is a lack of understanding and skills," Little said. "Children don't learn the value, because the parents didn't learn the importance as a child. We think, 'Obviously, the parents understand, because the rest of society understands the value of those things,' but, sometimes, they don't."

Terry Haven, Kids Count director for Voices of Utah Children, said education is critical when it comes to helping intergenerational children, a term that would describe Toese's children.  Little said teachers, adults and mentors can make a difference by supporting and encouraging children to finish school.

Toese graduated from Kearns High, even though she had daughter, Jaylah, when she was 17. She said she looks forward to putting her own children in school.  

Haven said there are already programs underway to help low-income, at-risk children, including one in Granite School District that enrolls them in preschools. Because Utah's poverty populations are relatively low, she said, it is easier to target the children in need.

"Because our numbers are a little bit lower, its doable," Haven said. "We can make a difference, so these little changes can make some big changes."

And change is the goal, Demma said. He emphasized that intergenerational poverty is a problem in every county in the state and the response to the report will  speak volumes about what Utahns value.

"Society is defined, in large part, by how we treat those who are most vulnerable in our community," he said. "The closer we come to moving these numbers down, the closer we are to effecting real change."

Demma said the numbers are already helping them develop a curriculum.

"We know who they are now," Little said. "And that enables us to follow up in a way we couldn't before."

Toese came to the U.S. with an aunt and uncle when she was 12. Her life hasn't been all that she'd hoped for, but she plans to stay here.

"America has a better life," she said.

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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