Ravell Call, Deseret News
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at Salt Lake Community College in Sandy on Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, about efforts to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty in Utah.

In the grand scheme of state governmental expenditures, the appropriation of $1 million to encourage local governments to tackle the problem of intergenerational poverty — defined as poverty that traverses two generations — is a modest though well-intentioned deployment of resources against a large and complex problem.

As part of its unique campaign against the kind of poverty that entrenches families for generations, Utah has made funding available to help pay for initiatives on the local level to help families and individuals escape a cycle of long-term hardship. The appropriation is a welcome addition to the resources already amassed by the state and represents another step forward in fighting a problem that afflicts nearly 50,000 Utahns.

But the demand for funding for programs involving early childhood education, child care assistance, job training and other necessities far exceeds the amount set forward in the grant program. And while it’s important that local governments become engaged in attacking the issue, long-term progress will depend on continued leadership at the state level.

While there are success stories in local efforts to help residents escape a cycle of poverty, the problem demands more focus and investment than county governments can typically offer, even with some fiscal support from the state. The population that needs assistance is transient in nature, as those seeking work or domicile are forced to move frequently from place to place. Their children are often uprooted from schools and end up missing significant periods of class time. The inability of children to enjoy consistent access to quality education is a key factor in promulgating long-term poverty.

When the state created its Intergenerational Poverty Initiative in 2012, it formally recognized the need to develop long-term strategies on the state level to address four primary components of the problem — early childhood development, education, health and family economic stability. Offering county governments the ability to apply for grants to support local programs in those arenas is a wise but limited addition to the strategy. The Legislature also appropriately required counties to report back on the effectiveness of the programs that receive state assistance.

To this point, such local initiatives have been sparse and relatively informal. In Utah County, there have been brainstorming sessions on how the community might work to identify and assist people struggling to maintain economic stability. In Weber County, there have been similar efforts to identify opportunities for local intervention and support programs.

The hope is that solutions can bubble up from the ground level. And though they very well may, the responsibility for pursuing a comprehensive strategy remains with the state. The legislative committee that passed the bill authorizing the grant money also passed a measure creating an Early Childhood Advisory Council to annually report on the “quality and availability of early childhood education, health and development programs and services” for families with young kids. That measure was strongly supported by organizations like the YWCA and the Utah Head Start Association, but it unfortunately stalled after the committee vote and was not brought before the full Legislature.

4 comments on this story

Utah has been at the forefront of efforts to identify, track and address the causes and effects of intergenerational poverty. Certainly, a significant portion of that effort needs to happen on the local level. We hope seed money for community-driven initiatives will foster innovative approaches that produce real, lasting results for those trapped in poverty. Such outcomes will validate the current $1 million investment, provide state and local leaders proven models to duplicate and guide potential partnerships and possible funding increases to best serve people in poverty in the years to come.