Education is key with these kids, making sure they have all the educational tools they need to survive and thrive in this world. —Sen. Deidre Henderson
SALT LAKE CITY – When Sen. Stuart Reid decided to take on the issue of intergenerational poverty, he ran into naysayers – some of them legislative colleagues from his own party.
Reid was undeterred. In three years, the Ogden Republican led an effort that started with research and resulted in the Utah Legislature this past week allocating $1 million in ongoing funding to provide two hours of after-school math and reading instruction to children who live intergenerational poverty and are struggling in school.
In an interview after the close of the 2014 Legislature, Reid said he was pleased with the outcome. The competitive grant program did not receive the $5 million appropriation he had sought but officials in the Department of Workforce Services say the state should be able to draw down approximately $3.3 million in federal funds with the state match.
“We have a foothold and I think more and more people understand the approach and the emphasis on intergenerational poverty and cycles of welfare dependency. To me, that’s a win,” Reid said.
This year’s legislation, SB43, which created the competitive grant program, passed overwhelmingly in each House of the Legislature.
Two hours of after-school instruction will be offered by the participating students' classroom teachers. Student participation is voluntary. School districts and public charter schools will compete for grants.
The bill was backed by a wide variety of stakeholders in the state.
“When you have Karen Crompton from Voices for Utah Children come and testify on behalf of your bill in committee as well as Gayle Ruzicka from the Eagle Forum, you have to be pretty pleased about a coalition of the left and the right supporting something they both believe will help children and solve a number of social problems,” Reid said.
Educating lawmakers and the community at large has been a deliberate process, he said.
Intergenerational poverty is the term given to describe the cycle of poverty that passes from generation to generation in families, making it difficult for family members to recognize how to escape poverty.
In 2012, the Legislature passed Reid's bill that required the Department of Workforce Services to create a system to track intergenerational poverty data to identify at-risk children and to publish an annual report.
The 2013 report identified more than 52,400 Utah children ages newborn to 17 who live in intergenerational poverty.
That effort was followed by legislation in 2013 that created a state commission of state department heads aided by an advisory committee of community stakeholders to develop policy recommendations to end intergenerational poverty and dependence on public assistance programs. The work of those two groups is ongoing.
“The goal has been to move the ball down the field without overwhelming the system and try to do it in phases so people could catch up with it intellectually and philosophically,” Reid said.
Crompton, a member of the Intergenerational Poverty Advisory Committee that makes recommendations to the commission, said the committee has reviewed a wealth of literature on programs and approaches proven to help lift children out of poverty.
“It’s taken us longer to get to the point were ready to lay out specific goals than I would have hoped. Some of that is the scope is so huge,” said Crompton, president and chief executive officer of Voices for Utah Children.
This week, the group’s subcommittees will offer more recommendations they hope will likewise germinate into policy changes. Some of the topics they will cover are education, health, nutrition and the roles of faith organizations, government, communities and families.
“I think the question is, how do you operationalize those goals in a comprehensive way?” Crompton said. “It will take us forever to get something done unless we look at a total systems approach.”
Reid, who will not seek re-election, said a number of state lawmakers have offered to continue to work on the issues of intergenerational poverty and dependency on public assistance, including Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork; Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, and Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper.
Henderson, a freshman senator, said there has been a growing awareness of the issue during her time in office thanks to Reid's leadership. Legislative leaders, department heads, nonprofit agency directors now understand that intergenerational poverty needs to be addressed differently than people who seek public assistance during brief, isolated incidents in their lives, she said.
Education is the key strategy to breaking cycles of poverty and public assistance dependency, she said. One of her great disappointments during the session was that Osmond’s bill on preschool for impoverished children did not pass.
“We know who all of these children are. Education is key with these kids, making sure they have all the educational tools they need to survive and thrive in this world,” she said.
Linda Hilton, director of the Coalition of Religious Communities, who is not a member of the advisory committee, said livable wages and access to health care must also be part of the conversation.
“If one or both of those were shored up, a lot of people would take a great leap out of poverty,” said Hilton.
Crompton says approaching the issue on the community level may be the next logical step. Voices for Utah Children will soon release a report that examines intergenerational poverty at a community level in Salt Lake, Weber and Davis counties, she said.
Reid said he has set the stage for ongoing work on the issue. His hope is that lawmakers who come after him will build upon his vision of the importance of giving children the knowledge and wherewithal they need to succeed in school and in life.
“If we can get through the educational process, they feel a sense of confidence and success. Then, they can do anything.”