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Utah kids’ well-being ranks 3rd

Poverty threatens children’s gains, U.S. study says

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Utah has once again placed third in national ranking of how well states look after their children's well-being. But the high cost of being poor is a threat to the gains here and nationwide, warns the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

According to 14th annual KIDS COUNT Data Book released Wednesday by the country's best-known children's advocacy group, Utah, for the second year in a row, is ranked in the top three behind Minnesota and New Hampshire. It was in sixth place three years ago. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and the District of Columbia rank lowest in the 2003 book.

Deseret News graphicDNews graphicKids count indicatorsRequires Adobe Acrobat.

Utah, which has a higher percentage of children (35) than any other state, scored almost the same as it did in 2002 in the 10 measurement categories, with a slight improvement in the percentage of low-birthweight babies (6.6 percent or 3,115 babies). There was a slight drop in the rate of teen births (21 per thousand females ages 15 to 17). Utah continues its 10-year trend of having the lowest percentage of families with children headed by a single parent (17 percent).

Utah had the lowest infant mortality rate in the country in last year's survey at 4.8 deaths per 1,000 births. In this year's book, which is released through the local advocacy group Utah Children and is based on data gathered in 2000, the infant mortality rate is 5.2 or third nationally.

Although the percent of Utah children living in poverty decreased, Utah actually dropped to third this year nationwide from second last year in that category, with 10 percent of Utah's 720,000 Utahns below age 18 impoverished. The percentage of children in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment is up a point at 18 percent, causing Utah to slip from second to fourth in the country in that category. It's those last two indicators that trouble local child advocates and the Casey Foundation. Even though more families have technically moved out of poverty, a bigger share of their incomes must go for food, housing and transportation, making it almost impossible to keep up let alone get ahead, the advocates say.

"Over the years, our research has shown that children who grow up in poverty face tough odds," said William O'Hare, coordinator of the KIDS COUNT project. "Data show they are more likely to drop out of school, become parents while still teenagers and repeat the cycle of poverty."

Even when help is there, many families don't take advantage of it, said Terry Haven, project coordinator in Utah. About half the households in Utah that would qualify for food stamps do not receive them, compared to 41 percent nationally, Haven said.

The research shows that about 72,000 Utah children live in neighborhoods where nearly 20 percent of the families have incomes below the $18,100 federal poverty level for a family of four.

A Utah family must earn $27,327 annually to afford a modest two-bedroom rental house, and minimum-wage workers would have to work 102 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom house or apartment, which in Utah runs about $680, according to Utah Issues, Center for Poverty Research and Action. An additional characteristic of the poor is they spend a much larger portion of their incomes for housing than middle-income families, 65 percent compared to 49 percent.

About 22,000 children in Utah live in extreme poverty — $8,732 for a family with two adults and two children, according to the data book.

Being part of the workforce has its own costs, which can strap working families, not matter what their income. But they are harder on the working poor, according to the research. Larger portions of income must be spent getting to work in both rural and urban areas, and they must pay a larger percentage for child care, which averages between $4,000 and $6,000. In addition, the poor are often faced with reductions in federal assistance, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, if they start earning too much money.

That is the main reason the poor stay poor, said Michael Sherraden, who is founder of Individual Development Accounts, an assistance program for the poor that would allow them to save money that is matched with public or private funds, not unlike a 401(k) or an Individual Retirement Account that many middle- and upper-income employees or business owners have.

People believe that government assists the poor, but they don't think of their tax deductions on their own children or their houses or retirement funds as government assistance. About $200 billion a year is spent on providing food stamps, Medicaid and other subsidies for the poor; $300 billion is spent on helping people with money to make more money, Sherraden said.

Overall, the ranking is good, Haven said. "But if you're one of those 72,000 children in poverty, the ranking doesn't mean much."

The research was also done at a time of nearly unprecedented economic growth, causing advocates to forecast that the trend will worsen as the economic downturn ripples into the next few years.

The data book can be viewed online at www.kidscount.org.

E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com