In the second part of KUER’s series The Utah Priorities Project, Utah Foundation researchers take a look at poverty in Utah. It’s an issue that is new to the list of top ten issues identified by voters in a statewide survey, coming in at #9.
The recession is partly to blame for the number of people in Utah living in poverty. That total is significantly lower than the nation as a whole, but people living below the federal standard for poverty has continued to grow even as the state’s employment numbers have recovered over the past two years.
Today’s Utah Foundation research brief reports 13.5% of Utah’s population lives at or below the poverty line. Researcher Shawn Teigen says one aspect of poverty in Utah is abundantly clear: Women and children are the by far the most vulnerable.
"For married couples, the poverty rate is actually pretty low," Teigen tells KUER. "It’s 6.2%. But when you have male households with no spouse present, it moves up to 16.1%, and this is for Utah. Female households with no spouse present, it’s 31%. It’s a huge difference, and one of the reasons why, certainly, is the difference in wages for females to males."
The Utah legislature passed a bill in its last session that tries to sort out how much of that poverty is situational – caused by job losses, medical crises or other circumstances that could be temporary – and how much is intergenerational – children who grew up in impoverished households and who are now also receiving public assistance as adults. The Utah Department of Workforce Services came out with a study on that question last week. Rick Little, the Department’s Director of Research and Analysis, says they only have data going back to 1989, but it’s enough to give them a clear picture of those receiving state benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
In an interview with KUER's Andrea Smardon, Little said, "Among adults ages 21 to 40, 38.8% of them are intergenerational. That’s a mark now that we can monitor over time to see if that number comes down, it’s not only a reflection of the overall number of people in poverty, but it also helps us identify that those who are in poverty right now tend to be more situational. And that’s really a good thing, because those who are temporary are not going to be here in the next generation."
Karen Crompton, who heads the advocacy group Voices for Utah Children, applauds the intergenerational poverty study, and she says there are some proven strategies that help families break free of a cycle of dependence.
"High quality pre-school programs are closing what we call the opportunity gap, where low-income, at-risk kids are now entering kindergarten on grade level with their peers, are reading at grade level at the end of 3rd grade. So if you can catch this early, and there is a cost up front, but it’s certainly not the cost that you see twenty years from now," Crompton told KUER.
Crompton is also an advocate of a state-level earned income tax credit to go along with the federal E-I-T-C program that provides cash to low-income families who are working and filing tax returns
She says, "Most people who live in poverty are working. Many of them are not going to get better jobs. They don’t have the skill level or the education level to do that. But if we can help supplement and encourage work through an earned income tax credit, we think that’s a good investment."
Utah Governor Gary Herbert has been an advocate of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, appearing in public service announcements encouraging families to apply. The question of a state E-I-T-C in Utah could come up in the next legislative session.