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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Employment counselor Sarah Guzman talks with Audra Eagle about her plan to find employment as Eagle's son, Brody, plays with toys with at the Utah State Metro Employment Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's economic recovery continues to outpace other states, but there are thousands of families where the grip of the Great Recession still refuses to let go.

Census estimates released last week show Utah increased its median household income by $4,204 to a total of $59,846 between 2009 and 2014. That's well above the nation's average increase of $2,057 to a median household income of $53,482.

But last year an estimated 342,000 Utahns — about 80,000 more people than in 2008 — were living below the poverty threshold, which is roughly $24,200 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"The story is pretty clear that we've had these wrenching changes and that the new economy that is emerging richly rewards people who are well-educated and just punishes people who don't have education," said Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Signs of improvement are emerging. While poverty rates remain higher than pre-recession levels, poverty in Utah declined from 13.6 percent to 11.8 percent between 2011 and 2014, according to poverty Census data released Tuesday.

But state agencies and community organizations are still asking what needs to happen to ensure that the benefits of a growing economy are extended to those who need them most, according to Karla Aguirre, director of programs and policies in the workforce development division of the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

"One of the things we're really trying to focus on is looking at the whole family and trying to provide those resources and support to the entire family," Aguirre said. "They don't have all the necessary support systems: child care, housing, food stamps, training, employment opportunities. We can provide that."

The road to recovery

Last week's five-year Census estimates for the 2010-14 American Community Survey showed that median household income went up in all but three counties in Utah since the 2005-09 estimates. For 11 counties, that increase was statistically significant, according to Perlich.

Beaver County had the largest statistically significant increase of $11,323, now reaching a median household income of $50,685. Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties all had increases greater than $4,000.

Summit County is currently estimated as having the largest median household income in the state at $89,886, with a margin of error of $4,162. Piute County had the lowest amount at $33,250, with a margin of error of $6,537.

Those gains occurred over several years of economic restoration following the recession. But the road to recovery has been longer for some.

"When the recession was high, we saw people in our employment centers that had suits and ties, and they'd been laid off. Those individuals have all gone back to work," Aguirre said. "It's the single moms and the people that struggle in poverty to maintain a job" that still need help.

Utah families with children under age 18 reached a poverty level of 13.2 percent in 2014, 2.5 percent more than in 2009. The portion of children under 18 living in poverty increased by 2.6 percent to include almost 1 in 7 children. Almost 38 percent of single mothers with young children are now living below the poverty line, 6 percent more than in 2009, according to Census estimates.

Utah's Hispanic population also saw a 6 percent increase in the portion of families living in poverty, which now includes more than 1 in 4 Hispanic and Latino households.

"It's been a very uneven recovery," Perlich said. "The people who have done well coming out of the recovery have done very well, and there you see incomes going up. But the people who are less educated in many cases or whose skills are now obsolete in the new economic conditions or (who are) underemployed are struggling."

For most places, the Great Recession hit its peak in 2011, and since then, poverty has gradually declined. Utah's most populous counties stayed well below the national mark, which was 15.5 percent in 2014. Salt Lake County saw the sharpest fall of 2.6 percent between 2011 and 2014.

Last year, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties respectively had poverty rates of 7.2 percent, 11.9 percent and 12.6 percent.

While the worst appears to be over, financial hardship is still a grim reality for many families in the state, Perlich said.

"There's still many people in the community who are going to bed hungry," she said. "I'm glad to see those poverty rates coming down, but there's still many many people in our community who are in pretty desperate situations.

Moving the needle

Since Utah's public assistance and workforce services agencies have not always been connected, low-income families historically had to go to separate offices for help with employment, food stamps and other services, according to Nic Dunn, spokesman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

But the department has created "one-stop" centers to ensure that more people know about and receive the various resources available, he said.

"Having that all under one roof where it's one touch point is way more efficient for these people," Dunn said. "It has been such a powerful tool to help them get back on their feet a lot more quickly."

Still, many people don't realize those centers provide help with nonemployment services, such as food stamps, child care, after-school programs, housing and financial assistance, according to Aguirre.

"I think probably the greatest challenge for this population is knowing where those resources are and how to get connected to them," she said. "People don't know where to go, and sometimes they think we're just about employment and not necessarily about financial and temporary assistance."

The department also works to connect patrons with outside organizations and services. LifeStart Village is one of them. The nonprofit organization offers temporary low-income housing for single mothers who may struggle with addiction, abuse, homelessness or other issues.

But the facility goes beyond filling a need for shelter. LifeStart staff facilitate a multiphase program for residents, offering a flexible rent structure that allows them to pay a fuller share as they transition into financial stability. The program also offers educational courses in parenting, budgeting, personal management, employment counseling and support groups.

"They're building up so that they can become self-sufficient," said program director Karen Haney. "Basically, I'm here full time trying to just give guidance and moral support that these women need. They need praise. They need to be congratulated."

LifeStart and the Department of Workforce Services also help patrons apply for financial assistance to enroll in college. This is especially crucial given that poverty rates for Utahns with less than a high school diploma increased from 18.7 percent to 24 percent between 2009 and 2014, according to Census estimates.

"You've got people who just don't have the skills or the training to succeed in any significant way in this new economy," Perlich said. "You've got to have more than high school to have a living wage in this economy."

Visions for the future

Leaders of several other Utah organizations say helping children break their family's cycle of poverty requires a greater level of cultural awareness among policymakers and an expectation of success for every student. United Way's collective impact initiative, for example, seeks to help educators use student data to recognize when a student's performance could be impacted by factors outside the classroom.

Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin said educators should also teach students that there are college opportunities for everyone — whether a student is seeking a graduate degree or a one-year certificate, whether they come from a long line of college graduates or they're the first in their family to step foot on campus.

Improving access to higher education is essential in order to reach Utah's goal of having 66 percent of its workforce with a college education by the year 2020, Huftalin said.

"Our message is that if you ever want to get to a 66 percent by 2020 goal, you have to invest in students who have never considered college in their life, and their parents have never had the opportunity to go to college," Huftalin said at a recent education summit. "Everybody can redefine how they define and think about college."

But before many Utahns can even enroll in college, there's more that employers and housing providers can do to help struggling families prepare, according to Haney.

That could include giving more consideration to people with felonies or lesser criminal histories. It could mean more flexible work hours for single parents. It could stem from daycare centers that better align with nontraditional work schedules.

It all requires a level of understanding unique to individual circumstances. But with some accommodation, employers can be rewarded with faithful employees while lifting members of their community, Haney said.

"They can work hard," she said. "They can do it, if people can give them a chance."

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