On June 1, Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and representatives from the Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission met with Grand County community leaders, elected officials and nonprofit directors to discuss a new initiative aimed at combating intergenerational poverty across the state.
“Thirty-one percent of Utah’s child population is at risk of remaining in poverty, [and] 52 percent of Grand County’s [child population], based on our data, is at risk of remaining in poverty as adults,” said Tracy Gruber, senior adviser to the Welfare Reform Commission. Gruber, who is the director of Utah’s Office of Child Care, authored the Intergenerational Poverty Annual Report.
Cox, who currently serves as chairman of the Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission, defined different types of poverty for the group. Situational poverty, he said, is when something negative happens and an individual or a family needs public assistance temporarily.
“You get sick, you lose your job, go through a divorce and find yourself suddenly in poverty needing help,” Cox said. “So you get on these government programs ... three months, six months, a year later you’re back on your feet, you’re off the programs. The welfare programs in place actually work pretty good for those situations.”
But intergenerational poverty, Cox said, speaks to a deeper issue — children who grew up in poverty with a higher likelihood of remaining in poverty as adults.
Department of Workforce Services (DWS) Executive Director Jon Pierpont told the audience that DWS is currently working with multiple state agencies to understand intergenerational poverty and reduce the number of children who remain in poverty as adults. While approximately 70 percent of DWS’ clients experience situational poverty, the remaining 30 percent experience intergenerational poverty, Pierpont said.
“[DWS] started to see that if you spent time as a child on public assistance you had a higher likelihood of being on public assistance as an adult,” Pierpont said. “We could see that four generations back. That was one of those ‘aha’ moments after 24 years of being in the department.”
According to Gruber, 281 Utah children in poverty have parents who also experienced poverty as children.
“The research is very clear that if you grow up experiencing economic challenges, you’re more likely to experience poverty as an adult,” Gruber said.
She explained that the Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission was formed to focus mainly on children in poverty. So far, the commission has identified four indicators of child well-being — education, family economic stability, health and early childhood development.
“These four areas are tied to research showing that if all four areas of these are addressed in a child’s life they’re more likely to be successful into adulthood,” Gruber said.
As an ecclesiastical leader in Sanpete County, Cox said he has witnessed children who are living in poverty breaking that cycle when given some resources and opportunities.
“I spent time with kids ... they were able and capable of taking new opportunities to change,” Cox said. “Many are in college right now and breaking that cycle.”
Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison told the audience that he was “astounded” when he first heard Grand County’s intergenerational poverty statistics.
Not only are 52 percent of Grand County’s poor children at risk of remaining in poverty as adults, 26 percent of local children from intergenerational poverty families are victims of abuse and neglect and 71 percent of intergenerational poverty youth ages 10 to 17 have some involvement with the Juvenile Justice System, according to the state’s report.
“I am committed, and I think the [Moab] City Council’s committed, and I think that the Grand County Council is committed to do something about this,” Sakrison said. “We owe it to our citizens to do something about this and try to break this continuation of intergenerational poverty. We owe it to them and we owe it to ourselves to do that.”
Grand County Council chairwoman Elizabeth Tubbs said there are several ideas the community could embrace to combat intergenerational poverty locally, including establishing a family resource center and creating a position to coordinate the county’s various nonprofit resources.
Representatives from more than 20 different community groups attended the June 1 intergenerational poverty meeting, including Seekhaven, Moab Regional Hospital, WabiSabi, Utah State University, the Southeastern Utah Health Department, and Four Corners Behavioral Health.
“We might look at having somebody in a paid position to coordinate some of these services. We might look at creating a family resource center, some sort of caring house,” Tubbs said. “... Those are some ideas. How can we bring them all together sort of under one roof and help people access the services? If we have 20 programs that do different things in the community it’s very difficult for one individual to figure out ‘where am I supposed to go to get this help?’”
Cox said that grant funds for Grand County’s local efforts to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty — in whatever form those efforts take shape — will be available from the state “soon.”