SALT LAKE CITY — Child poverty is on the rise in Utah, a trend child advocates say drives down many other measures of child well-being.
According to the latest KIDS COUNT report, nearly 378,000 Utahns lived below the federal poverty level in 2011, with more than 140,000 of them children under age 18.
"Poverty affects everything else we look at. It's a huge 'uh-oh' moment," said Terry Haven, deputy director of Voices for Utah Children.
According to the report, 16.2 percent of the state's children lived in poverty in 2011, up from 13 percent in 2010.
The increase, Haven said, is largely due to the sputtering national economy. The percentage of children living in poverty exceeded 18 percent in Salt Lake County.
Meanwhile, the percentage of women who receive prenatal care has remained about 78 percent the past five years. Infant mortality rates and the percent of low birth weight babies born to Utah mothers have not changed substantially, either, the report said.
"We are seeing improvement in the teen pregnancy rate, which mirrors what is going on nationally," Haven said.
In Salt Lake County, the teen birth rate was 19.2 per 1,000 teenage girls, according to the report, which is based on 2011 data.
Haven said the intent of the report is to provide factual, longitudinal data to policymakers who oversee the funding of programs for children and families.
The Salt Lake-based child advocacy organization has vigorously lobbied the state lawmakers to fund high-quality preschool for at-risk children statewide, she said.
Many children who enroll in Granite School District's high-quality preschool program speak no English, she said. By the end of third grade, children who have completed the program perform on par in math and English with peers not affected by poverty, according to Utah State University research.
"That's a no-brainer," Haven said.
While many policy decisions in Utah are driven by finances, others boil down to political will, she said.
"The question is, what are those programs we need to invest in to make sure children have what they need to be successful?"
For the first time, the annual report included statistics on intergenerational poverty. According to the report, 14,157 adults lived in intergenerational poverty in Salt Lake County in 2010.
Two years ago, the Utah Legislature passed a bill requiring the state Department of Workforce Services to prepare a report on intergenerational poverty. That information will be reported to lawmakers annually.
Beginning in May, a commission composed of five state department heads and one nonvoting member will start meeting to develop policy recommendations to end intergenerational poverty in Utah. Lawmakers passed a bill during the 2013 general session creating the commission, which will be advised by a community stakeholder committee.
Haven said the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which funds the annual KIDS COUNT reports, has given Voices for Utah Children additional funding to continue its work tracking intergenerational poverty.
Marjorie Cortez is a veteran journalist who covers immigration, poverty and other human services issues for the Deseret News and KSL. She has reported for news organizations in Colorado and Utah since 1983, the last 24 years at the Deseret News.
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