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Lawmakers to tackle the question: Can the poverty cycle be halted in Utah?

Published: Thursday, Jan. 31 2013 6:25 p.m. MST

Utah must hold parents and other adults who play a role in the lives of children in poverty accountable for their success or failure, an Ogden lawmaker says.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah must hold parents and other adults who play a role in the lives of children in poverty accountable for their success or failure, an Ogden lawmaker says.

Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, is sponsoring legislation to establish a commission to study recently released data on intergenerational poverty in Utah and to develop policy recommendations to break the cycle of kids in poverty becoming adults in poverty.

Last year, Utah lawmakers passed a bill that requires the state Department of Workforce Services to create a system to track intergenerational poverty data to identify at-risk children. 

The data were eye-opening:

The report found that 364,822 people live in poverty in Utah, about 13.2 percent of the state's population. Children in poverty number 136,751 or almost 16 percent of the state's child population.

"There are some clear things we know from the data and from studies that will benefit these children. That's what we want to focus on. We want to hold adults, both parental adults, guardians and agency adults who are managing the system, accountable for success on behalf of these children," said Reid, who sponsored the bill and is pushing legislation this year in search of solutions.

A newly established commission would include the executive directors of the state departments of Workforce Services, Health, Human Services, the state superintendent of public instruction, the state juvenile court administrator or their designees, and a nonvoting chairman.

The commission would meet at least quarterly and produce a report by Nov 1. Members will not be compensated, but their expenses will be covered.

This year's bill, SB53, also calls for an advisory committee not to exceed 11 members to assist the commission. Members would include representatives of faith-based organizations, local government, academia, and child advocacy organizations, all of whom have expertise in education and/or childhood poverty issues.

The next step

Karen Crompton, executive director of the advocacy organization Voices for Utah Children, said Reid wants top administrators and policymakers at the table, "not just some designee, so we can give it the importance it deserves."

Crompton said she supports the next step in Reid's plan.

"It brings a group of people together to share information in ways we sometimes don't do, because we tend to operate in silos in almost everything we do," she said.

Adults who receive public assistance benefits are required to seek or prepare for work, Reid said. Parents who receive public assistance should also be required to demonstrate that their children are attending school and meeting other benchmarks of well-being.

One of the key challenges of addressing intergenerational poverty is that government agencies that serve low-income people use the same approach when dealing with people in poverty, whether it is situational or intergenerational, he said.

Reid and his wife, Laura, have elected to live in inner cities for most of their married life, he said. He has twice served as a bishop for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in inner-city wards and has worked with hundreds of people who have received public assistance. 

Government agencies, churches and nonprofit agencies are adept at helping people who experience situational poverty due to a death, catastrophic accident or illness or a house fire, Reid said.

Unfortunately, the same strategies are used to address families that have received public assistance for three or four generations, Reid said.

"I think there's just a lack of recognition that there are two different populations that are in poverty, and they needed to be treated very differently one from the other," he said.

That's where the data set can help, said Rick Little, director of research and analysis for the Department of Workforce Services and author of the 2012 report.

"If we know, for example, a child we are serving today's own parents were also children on public assistance, the strategy how we might serve those households might vary," he said.

Little said he will be presenting his findings to researchers at the University of Utah and BYU to develop a greater understanding of what approaches might best help break the cycle of poverty.

The report, released in September, is an analysis of DWS clients ages 21 to 40 who received public assistance between 1989 and 2008.

While Utah's poverty rates are lower than those of many other states, the numbers of individuals in poverty has steadily risen here since 2000, Little said.

The report, which also included U.S. Census Bureau data, found that the longer adults were in poverty as children, the longer they are likely to be in poverty as adults.

Moreover, the more impoverished a person is during childhood, the more likely that person is to receive public assistance as an adult.

Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, said there is merit to a commission studying interventions related to public assistance programs.

Many people are in poverty due to low education attainment and little opportunity for job training, which means they typically earn low wages, Cornia said.

"Do they have access to training for trades? Are there apprenticeships? What are we doing to reduce poverty in terms of increasing families' incomes instead of blaming people for being poor or not working hard enough?" she asked.

A few concerns

Glenn Bailey, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for and serves low-income people, said Reid's approach raises concerns.

"We think the focus should be on helping people increase household income," Bailey said, "because if there are no poor parents, there are no poor kids. But the focus doesn't seem to be there. It seems to be, 'How do we save these children despite their parents?' And I think that's quite troubling."

Reid insists that parents will have an integral role in strategies and policies proposed by the commission. 

"We're not excluding parents at all. Everything we're doing will run through the parents," he said. "There's an accountability for them. (This would) help them recognize the importance of their role (as parents)."

Even so, Bailey said, he will approach the political discussion with "healthy suspicion." The commission's recommendations won't be known for at least another year, so the potential harm or benefit is difficult to assess.

Bailey said breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty will require giving parents an opportunity, through job training or education, to earn higher incomes.

"That would be a better starting place than, 'How are we going to save these children, despite their crappy parents?'" he said.

Initially, some lawmakers were skeptical of Reid's vision for addressing intergenerational poverty. But as the data have become available, Reid's focus on children has garnered greater support among his legislative colleagues, he said.

"They called me up and said, 'Look, you're right. There is a problem here. It's not something we're really dealing with either at the state or the federal level, and we need to approach this differently.' And from that point on, they've been very, very supportive."

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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