Blog Post

Utah’s Intergenerational Poverty Research: A Public Policy Breakthrough

By: Natalie Gochnour

Originally published in the Deseret News

I’m always looking for public policy breakthroughs that make Utah a better place to live and raise a family. I can think of several great decisions over the years. For instance, Olene Walker sponsored legislation that created Utah’s rainy day fund. It was a lifesaver when the financial crisis hit. The Utah Compact advanced principles to guide Utah’s immigration discussion. This created the context for immigration reform policies that protected public safety, kept families together and strengthened the Utah economy. And when Salt Lake and Utah counties passed ballot initiatives supporting 70 miles of new rail transit, we invested in our future. Today it’s hard to imagine urban Utah without FrontRunner commuter rail and TRAX light rail.

There is another public policy breakthrough I’m following that has the potential to do tremendous good for our state. The Intergenerational Poverty Mitigation Act, passed in 2012, seeks to reduce the incidence of children who remain in a cycle of poverty and welfare dependence as they become adults. Utah is ahead of the curve in understanding this issue and is on the cusp of making real progress.

The visionary for this work is former state Sen. Stuart Reid. He helped his colleagues on Capitol Hill see that situational poverty — like losing a job — is very different from intergenerational poverty, which is passed from parent to child. He worked with his colleagues to fund unprecedented research that focuses on the entire family rather than just adults. This research is now shaping evidence-based strategies to help people in need. I believe it’s another Utah success story.

To put it simply, children stuck in intergenerational poverty enter kindergarten unprepared to learn. Too often they have been victims of neglect and abuse. Many have stunted cognitive, social and emotional development. Without purposeful intervention these children are on a sure path to misery. Society loses as well. To solve intergenerational poverty you have to focus on the children.

The Intergenerational Poverty Mitigation Act provides this focus. The act requires the Utah Department of Workforce Services to cull together data and policies that help us understand the issues. A variety of agencies have organized the data and created a roadmap for the future. Here are a few of their recent findings:

— Approximately 50,000 Utah children live in intergenerational poverty. That’s about the size of the city of Murray.

— More than 230,000 children are at risk of remaining in poverty as adults. Combined, these children make up nearly one third of Utah’s child population.

— We can empower children to escape poverty if we provide a foundation of support that enables them to become successful adults. This process starts in early childhood because the cognitive deficits of children raised in economic hardship start early.

— It is important that we align and coordinate our