Adobe stock photo
A diverse group of Weber County officials launched a local effort Tuesday to rescue thousands of children from intergenerational poverty and reliance on public assistance, the latest step in an ongoing statewide initiative.

OGDEN — For 58 hours in the fall of 1987, the nation fretted over the fate of a toddler they knew only as "Baby Jessica."

Eighteen-month-old Jessica McClure fell down a 22-foot well in her aunt's backyard. The entire ordeal — which culminated in her rescue — was captured on cable television.

"It was really amazing, the whole nation coming together over one child," said Weber County Commissioner James Ebert.

On Tuesday, Ebert and fellow Commissioner Kerry Gibson launched an effort to rescue thousands of children in Weber County from intergenerational poverty.

The effort is the next step in an ongoing state initiative to sharply reduce rates of intergenerational poverty, which is defined as two or more generations living in poverty.

Most Utah children who live in intergenerational poverty are ages 12 and under, white and live in single-parent households. The majority live in Salt Lake, Utah or Weber counties, although children in jeopardy of remaining in poverty live in every county in the state, according to state data.

After nearly five years of study and collecting data, a commission of state department heads is asking local leaders of 10 counties to review aggregate data about children and families in their communities and develop local strategies intended to lift them out of poverty.

Weber County did not wait for the state's invitation. It got things rolling on its own, and to kick things off, Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and other state department heads visited Ogden to encourage the effort and offer technical support.

"You're already ahead of most counties, just the fact you're bringing people together, you're working. You've got the right people in the room. That's a huge step," Cox said.

The state will provide participating counties with small grants to support their local efforts, he said.

Gibson said when Ebert took office about 18 months ago, they discovered they were like-minded with respect to their vision for Weber County's future.

They both came to the realization that "our time in office is likely to be short. So what can we really do for our community that will make a difference in the future, not just today but the long term?" Gibson said.

Next came a series of talks, deep thought, study and "frankly a little bit of prayer about what would really be that difference maker," Gibson said.

Addressing intergenerational poverty "was one issue we felt was very, very important."

The commissioners have brought together a wide array of partners to develop strategies to address the problem, which Gibson said the commission hopes can become a model for local governments nationwide.

Key players include educators, human services officials, juvenile court representatives, nonprofit organizations, faith-based groups, health officials and others.

Thirty-seven percent of Weber County's children are at risk of remaining in poverty as adults, according to the state's fourth annual "Report on Intergenerational Poverty, Welfare Dependency and the Use of Public Assistance."

The county's education data highlights other troubling trends. Some schools have rates of chronic absence that exceed 25 percent.

Eighty percent of adults lack education or training beyond high school, which translates into low-wage jobs and "sporadic attachment" to the labor force, said Tracy Gruber, senior adviser to the Department of Workforce Services' intergenerational poverty initiative.

More than 48,000 Utah children live in intergenerational poverty in Utah, according to the state's 2015 report.

Jon Pierpont, executive director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said the state will issue its fifth annual report on intergenerational poverty in the fall. Former state Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, sponsored the first legislation in 2012 to require the state to produce an annual report about intergenerational poverty.

Since then, a commission of state department heads have developed five- and 10-year plans to reduce rates of intergenerational poverty and dependence on public assistance programs

The state's research draws a clear line between situational poverty — such as significant decline in household income due to a job loss or the death of a spouse — and generations of poverty and dependence on public assistance.

Utah's data has tracked some impoverished families that span four generations, Pierpont said.

"It became more and more clear the challenges these families face from Cache down to Washington (counties) and everywhere in between. We're talking about 49,000 children, children whose parents have also had some exposure to welfare or the public assistance system as children," he said.

This year, the department is visiting Utah counties with high rates of intergenerational poverty to encourage them to employ their own initiatives.

"I do think it is one of the most important things you can be working on in a community," Pierpont said.

Gibson credited Ebert for taking on the issue early on in his commission term. "He was absolutely not willing to take 'no' for an answer."

For initiatives to succeed in the public arena, it takes resources, buy-in and partnerships, Gibson said.

"When we started putting some framework around this, all these people came out of the woodwork and said, 'Wait a minute. I've got an idea on this.' And pretty soon we got some real momentum and some real direction here," Gibson said.

Tuesday's kickoff was "a fun day," he said.

"There's some work ahead of us. I'm confident with our passion and direction for this issue that we'll be able to be successful in those endeavors."

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com