The United Way of Salt Lake announced Friday the formation of a community agenda task force to tackle the core issues that cause the area's most pressing social problems.
Rather than continue to throw money at the results or companions of poverty, top officials say it is time to go after the seeds that cause people to struggle to find health care, affordable housing, substance abuse treatment and help with parenting skills.
"This represents a new approach and a new position for United Way," said Bill Nelson, chairman of the group's board of directors. "There hasn't before been a community-wide meeting of leaders to resolve these core issues."
The announcement was made at the state's largest community service group's Centennial luncheon Friday. Also announced there was a $1 million gift to United Way from Kem and Carolyn Gardner. He is former chairman of the United Way's board of directors, a community activist and Salt Lake developer who is former president of the Boyer Co.
The task force approach stems from a five-month research study/survey commissioned by United Way to determine the top societal problems in Salt Lake, Summit and Tooele counties — the geographical area it serves.
In the first of four phases of the study, six focus groups drawing on the input of 66 frontline workers including law enforcement, educators, social workers and health-related professionals identified 17 issues of concern. Those included lack of life skills, substance abuse, domestic violence, inadequate child supervision, crime and lack of access to mental health care.
From there, 807 residents were polled by telephone to evaluate the importance of those issues and assess how well communities are addressing them.
Out of that polling, the seven "most serious" problems were identified and then traced to four core issues that Nelson said are not only the "root" of the rest of the problems but are growing rapidly and are widespread.
"We can continue to raise money and take care of these problems downstream, but if we do that, we will never get ahead of them," he said.
Those four root problems identified:
Insufficient income: unemployment, underemployment, low wages, lack of benefits
People lacking life skills: money management skills, parenting skills, coping skills, personal responsibility
Inadequate child supervision: lack of affordable after-school programs, lack of affordable, quality, early child-care options
Barriers to education: illiterate or non-English speaking parents, poor study skills, lack of tutoring or homework assistance programs.
On a positive note, the survey also tapped the community's willingness to get involved and help solve the problems.
Nelson said the household survey revealed 73 percent of the respondents were willing to donate time, 79 percent were willing to contribute money and 54 percent were willing to pay more in taxes to help alleviate those problems.
"It is very clear the community at large is ready and willing to work together to solve these issues," he said. "We believe strongly we are blessed with strong leadership and a community who cares."
The task force, which will be formed by the end of the year, will further define the problems, and smaller councils will then develop a systemic, practical approach to implement changes. The goal is to start some pilot programs by next July.
"This won't be a quick fix, but it is an effort that has to involve everyone — from public policymakers to employers," Nelson said.
Deborah Bayle Nielsen, the United Way's president and chief executive officer, said more people need to get involved at advocating for long-term changes — not just the familiar faces that haunt the Legislature. "Right now, it is just service providers advocating for these changes."
The assessment can be viewed at www.uw.org.