Utah is among states with relatively few children living in areas where poverty is prevalent. That's the good news.
The bad news, according to a newly released study, is that the number of Utah children residing in poor neighborhoods increased 80 percent since 2000, with some 27,000 children now living in communities with high concentrations of poverty.
Utah's increase was more than triple the 25 percent increase notched across the country, based on a comparison of 2000 Census numbers and 2006-2010 data from the Census' American Community Survey. Nationally, nearly 8 million children are now living in areas of concentrated poverty. Some states saw dramatic increases such as Colorado, where numbers rose 360 percent to 72,000 children while eight states recorded decreases, according to a Kids Count data snapshot from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
"The good news is our numbers are small enough that we can make a difference and help these families," said Terry Haven, Kids Count director for Voices for Utah Children. "With a few strategic policy changes and some political will, we can begin to move these 27,000 children and their families out of poverty."
The nonprofit foundation said children who live in areas of "concentrated poverty" where 30 percent or more of residents are below the poverty threshold are more likely to not have access to good schools, quality medical care and safe outdoor spaces. They also are more likely to experience harmful levels of stress and severe behavioral and emotional problems that affect school performance.
The nonprofit foundation's report is timely given a bill approved by the Utah Legislature that directs the state Department of Workforce Services to gather information on intergenerational poverty. Sponsored by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, SB37 is aimed at gathering data that may shed light on factors that contribute to ongoing cycles of poverty within families. Workforce Services estimates that about a third of Utahns receiving some form of public assistance grew up in families that also received government aid.
The foundation's study noted the challenge for parents trying to work their way out of poverty. It found that 75 percent of the children living in areas of concentrated poverty have at least one parent in the labor force. Almost half come from families with incomes above the poverty line, which in 2010 was $22,314 for a family of four.
The Casey Foundation report highlighted four "promising practices" for moving families out of poverty and ensuring their children have the best shot at economic success as adults:
• Combining investments in early childhood and education programs for children with employment help and asset-building activities for parents.
• Enlisting universities, hospitals and other "anchor" institutions as partners in offering job opportunities and educational support for parents.
• Providing educational, employment and financial coaching support to working-age residents of assisted housing complexes.
• Ensuring transportation systems connect affordable housing complexes to employment centers.
• Increasing access to affordable housing so families can move out of areas of concentrated poverty.
Haven pointed out that a number of bills still being debated by the Legislature address policy issues raised in the Casey Foundation report, including earned-income tax credits, quality preschool for low-income children and continuous eligibility for kids on Medicaid. With the latest estimates indicating there will be nearly $350 million less in state revenue, the organization is urging lawmakers to remember many families have yet to recover from the Great Recession and to keep funding for support programs intact.
"The state earned-income tax credit, quality preschool for low-income kids, and continuous eligibility for children on Medicaid already enjoy substantial support in the Legislature, and for good reason," said Allison Rowland, director of research and budget for Voices for Utah Children. "Systematic and objective research over many years has demonstrated the effectiveness of these programs for supporting families. In fact, investment in these programs pays off with benefits to Utah's economic future at least as much as any business tax credit or exemption. It's also the right thing to do for our community and our kids."