Ravell Call, Deseret News
Rachel Jeffers kisses her daughter, Keiana, at The Road Home winter overflow shelter in Midvale on Monday, Oct. 1, 2012.

For people living in a state claiming the largest middle class and the lowest income inequality in the nation, Utahns unsurprisingly understand a great deal about their neighbors in need. In a recent survey conducted for the Next Generation Freedom Fund (NGFF) by Heart+Mind Strategies and ORC International, over a quarter (27 percent) of Utahns have heard of intergenerational poverty (high for a relatively obscure issue) and can aptly describe it. Furthermore, Utahns seem to have an intuitive feel for why intergenerational poverty is different from situational poverty.

Utahns who have heard of intergenerational poverty are more than likely to describe it as “poverty being a cultural and generational problem, where new generations are being born into poverty and know no other way of life than poverty.” Understanding the existence of a stifling culture of dependency, respondents added, “They learn from within the welfare system.”

Perhaps influenced by the “can do” spirit and the rugged individualism of a pioneer heritage, many Utahns mistakenly believe children living in conditions of intergenerational poverty are most equipped to break the cycle through the influence of their parents or, generally, by the children’s own bootstraps. Nearly an equal number of respondents correctly understand that the parents of these children are often a part of the problem or lack resources to be a part of the solution. And, of course, these children most often do not have bootstraps.

To that end, virtually all Utahns (92 percent) believe “financial assistance can help people in poverty get by, but it does little to nothing to help them learn how to get out of poverty.” Highly encouraging is the finding endorsed by NGFF that “direct personal involvement from a friend, mentor or volunteer is the kind of relationship and training needed to break the cycle of poverty.”

The NGFF survey affirms that Utah is moving in the right direction on intergenerational poverty. The Utah Legislature and the citizens of the state get the picture and see a big problem and the opportunity to have a vast impact on the lives of Utah’s nearly 60,000 children living in persistent poverty. After five years of study and discussions across the state, people are becoming more aware of the need, and our Legislature is now poised to work on real solutions through state and local collaborations.

The most pressing issues for the Legislature to address are current systemic obstacles in the law preventing sharing the names and circumstances of these children among agencies and funding streams that ensure that new and reallocated funds reach Utah counties in which intergenerational poverty exists in high proportions.

However, the biggest need now is to truly understand these children and their circumstances. Policymakers need to know the customers they are serving. Many well-intended government programs ultimately fail because the child that needs help is an individual with unique circumstances, not the statistical average of all needy children. If Utah is serious about breaking the cycle of poverty for nearly 60,000 children, we need to do better in understanding the real needs and circumstances of these children. The serious needs of these children, as well as the high costs to taxpayers, are far too great to rely upon statistical assumptions, aggregate indicators or an approach of casting a wide net of programs that might help a few of these precious children.

With deeper knowledge that comes from sharing information we already know, policymakers could confidently move forward to ensure 360-degree collaboration among agencies and common intake platforms and new and reallocated funding to the communities most directly affected, spent in a way that has a direct positive impact on the challenges these children are facing. Intergenerational-poverty policy is at a critical juncture, and with the excellent leadership of the Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission, led by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Department of Workforce Services Director Jon Pierpont, Utah can be a shining example to the nation in helping children out of poverty.

Paul Mero is president and CEO of Next Generation Freedom Fund. Dee Allsop is CEO and managing partner of Heart+Mind Strategies.